In wake of the mass casualties from the shooting in Las Vegas, I find it important to bring up a very daunting topic – How to talk to kids about death and violence. I think it’s fair to assume that most people reading this article have either had children, interacted with children, or plan to have children. For you, the topic will certainly come up and it’s crucial to know how to provide kids with helpful, safe, and understandable responses to any questions and concerns.
Over the last few days, I have been asked questions about how to address issues related to communicating about death and violence to children. Here, I hope to provide answers.
How should parents talk to kids about death and violence, like the shootings in Las Vegas?
It is imperative that adults understand that feelings are universal and not age-dependent. Children feel sad, angry, anxious, etc. just like adults, but knowing how to express feelings and respond to them is learned. When tragedies like what happened in Las Vegas occur, it often produces feelings such as shock, anger, confusion, or hopelessness. These feelings often manifest in the form of misbehavior, inattention, or hyperactivity. Why? Because children have to put those feelings somewhere. That “somewhere” often looks like breaking toys. Or punching a wall. Or even worse, causing harm to self or others. Just like how people put their prized possessions in a “safe place,” it’s important for children to “place” their feelings in a safe, loving, and accepting haven.
Providing a safe haven is at the root of parenting, but difficult to maintain during a crisis. To deal with difficult issues in the aftermath of a tragedy, it’s important to validate the feelings attached to them. Model how to redirect negative feelings and express them in a helpful way. Being open to listening to your child as they try to process a devastation and provide the safe haven for them to get their feelings out verbally. Remind them that all feelings are valid and there is a safe way to respond to every feeling. It’s up to parents to provide that direction.
How can I possibly grieve when my child needs to grieve too?
As human beings, grief and tragedy are unfortunately inevitable. So, naturally, it is important to figure out ways to cope effectively and model the same for others. It could seem next to impossible to pull out your best coping strategies in that face of hardship when such a situation is hitting YOU at your emotional core. A way to make sure grief does not create family conflict, relationship problems, or psychological issues is to take care of yourself. It’s hard to care for others, if you don’t care for yourself, also. Utilizing self-care techniques that you’ve found helpful is key. It is equally important to give yourself the space to grieve as it is for loved ones.
Talking about grief with loved ones can be difficult; but, it’s also a very important way to cope with it. Processing a tragic event as a family could be a great way to not only attend to a feeling all together, but also to model that it’s okay to have such feelings. By showing that YOU feel vulnerability – that you feel all the same feelings they do – you’re giving them permission to process the discomfort. This will minimize the likelihood for negative behaviors to occur.
How can I ensure that my children are safe?
Unfortunately, it is impossible to ensure a child’s safety with 100% confidence. I’m not here to suggest otherwise. But it is possible to teach them ways to increase the likelihood for safety. For instance, knowing how to use their five senses to be aware of their surroundings. Just like the classic motto “If you see something, say something,” it is important for children to know how to respond to any negative feelings or suspicions by seeking safety.
Lastly, in an age when tragedy occurs and is publicized all over the media, it makes it hard to escape. One way to shift focus from violence portrayed in the media is to acknowledge the good in a horrific situation. Encourage them to ask “who are the helpers?” or “let’s find the heroes.” Teaching them to have thoughts like these can go a long way in making them feel more safe and in helping be able to integrate the “good” with the “bad” amidst hardship or loss.