Children and Violence

Talking to our Kids about Violence and Violent Events

Denise Ann Bodman (Bustamante), PhD
Bethany Van Vleet, PhD

The Connecticut school shoot gives parents pause. We worry about our children's safety and we also worry about the effects of witnessing or hearing about such events on our children's well being. How should we respond to our children following their exposure to a violent event? It's important for us to remember that the Connecticut shooting is not the only violent event that should concern us. Tragedies that can be harmful to children can range from a shooting at a school or witnessing an armed robbery to watching the nightly news covering war, torture, or an airplane crash.

Here are our ten suggestions for talking to children about a violent event:

1. Avoid the constant "drone" of the violent event. Turn off the news and "specials" covering the event (especially, if you have children present). Watch your conversations with other adults when children are present. As my mom used to say, "Little teapots have big ears!"

2. For most of us, as adults, this violence needs to be put in perspective before we can adequately and effectively help our children. For example, despite what parents might believe, schools are among the safest places on earth for children. In a report by the Secret Service and Department of Education (2004), it was found that the odds of dying in a school shooting (suicide or assault) were a million to one. Compare that with other odds for death: 1/134,906 being killed by lightning, 1/144,899 dog bite, 1/652, 046 fireworks, drowning 1/1103, car crash 1/163 (National Safety Council, Injury Facts, 2012). Over 100 people die in car crashes per day in the U.S.! Yet, even with these statistics, we still own dogs, go to fireworks shows, and drive our cars, usually without a second thought. Yes, bad things can happen; but likely our children will be safe.

3. Before talking about an event, always consider the age of your children. How you talk to a 4-year-old will be very different from a 14-year-old or a 24-year-old (and yes, our adult children can benefit from our discussions).

4. "Listen" to your children. Listening is more than hearing words. Listening also refers to "hearing feelings" or thoughts behind the words. "Are there bad people at our school?" might be an unstated fear of a similar incident that a child witnessed on television or heard about at school or home. Answering "Yes...there are bad people everywhere" or "Of course not!" will not really address the true question of "Will I be safe?"

5. Understand that children will often ask the same or similar questions over a period of time. Avoid getting frustrated or dismissing the question ("We've gone over this before...I told you there's nothing to worry about"). Instead, lovingly respond to the question. Don't ever be afraid to ask, "Why do you ask?" or "Are you worried about that?"

6. Let your children talk. This might be in play situations or at the dinner table or in the car. Engage them in conversation and try to listen for meaning and content.

7. Be honest with children (but within reason). Young and elementary school aged children don't need to know all the details . The question, "How did he kill them?" could simply be answered with, "He used a gun." Avoid such answers as "He shot them three times" or "He used a knife and slit their throats."

8. Reassure your children. Love them, hug them, laugh with them, play with them. Our actions speak so much louder than our words. Tell them that you will help keep them safe, as will their teachers and other people in their lives.

9. Help children DO something in response to a traumatic event. Draw a picture or write a card for the school or city or family that was involved. Collect donations if they are needed. Help children help children in your local area (such as collecting bears for the police department to give to children involved in car crashes or domestic violence situations).

10. Maintain a healthy and healthful lifestyle. Help your children get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise. Keep a regular routine. There is much comfort in routine.

The world is not always a safe place; however, how we respond to those incidents that are so horrifying and disconcerting to all of us can make a difference in how children see their world. Bad stuff happens but so does good stuff. I'd rather have my child see the world as a positive place where bad stuff happens than a negative place where good stuff happens.

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world." - Fred Rogers ("Mr. Rogers")

Resources for Parents and Professionals:

Dr. Bodman teaches about child abuse, children and violence, human development, and family relationships at Arizona State University. She has two grown children (including Bethany Van Vleet).

Dr. Van Vleet teaches about human development, gender, statistics, and research at Arizona State University. She has two young children (age 1 and 4).