As our community continues to experience an increase in violence and grief, it is important to consider how children are taking in and processing the news they hear. Whether they know someone who has experienced violence or have had repeated exposure to events, you may notice changes in the way your child acts or feels in response. Consider what your child has been hearing and seeing lately and if they may be struggling to process this information.
It can be hard to know where to start, so here are a few tips on how to talk with children about violence or grief that they have been exposed to recently.
Ask questions. No matter the age, start by asking the child what they already know or have heard. Then ask what questions they have. This is especially important if they’ve had a friend or classmate that has recently had a traumatic experience as they may have heard a lot of different versions of the story already at school.
Keep it simple. In general, it is best to share basic information only and skip the graphic or unnecessary information. For example, if your child’s classmate was involved in an accident, you can confirm the basic details they have shared or you know. For example, “You’re right. Sally and her dad were in a car accident and she is staying in the hospital now because she was hurt.” But try to avoid any graphic details regarding the person’s injuries or viewing news stories that show images from the scene.
Avoid overexposure. Try to keep younger children away from repeated graphic images and stories on television and social media. Often, the same stories are shared numerous times on different broadcasts or sites, and while we can understand that it’s the same story told again, children can easily misinterpret these stories as separate and as happening more often than they actually are.
Watch what they watch. With older children, try to make sure you are watching these news stories with them so you hear the information they are hearing and can observe their reaction. This way, you can discuss it with them in real time, which can be more impactful.
Normalize their feelings. You can help your child process their feelings by letting them know that what they’re feeling is normal. For example, “It is normal to feel sad and worried, or maybe even a little mad that this has happened. I feel that way, too.”
Encourage self-expression. Allow extra time and grace for kids to process the information they are receiving. They may express themselves physically (trouble falling asleep, hard time concentrating), emotionally (crying, tantrums), or through play (playing more aggressively or acting out death). You may encourage channeling self-expression through art activities, journaling, or themed play. As long as they are safe, let your child feel and play out these emotions. This is their way of thinking through the news and finding some control in difficult situations.
Wrap up with the good. Like Mr. Rogers always said, “Look for the helpers.” Let the children know that there are people in our community helping — doctors and nurses who could help with their injuries and families/friends/caregivers who are taking care of their loved ones.
Be patient and repeat if necessary. Children often ask questions over and over. Yes, they’re listening, but they need that repetition to understand and feel comforted.
As with any area of your child’s health, if you have concerns about these conversations or your child’s mental health, your pediatrician can help.
For more tips, check out the blog post Let’s talk: Talking to your child about tough topics and behavioral health.