Whether community violence is a one-time incident or frequent occurrence in your community, following each incident of community violence, it’s important for parents to spend time talking with children, find ways to help them feel safe, maintain rules and routines and address any acting out behaviors.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers practical guidelines to help parents talk to children about shootings, mass shootings, and other forms of community violence. Here are some tips on how to help your child deal with community violence:
- Start the conversation. If you’ve heard about a violent incident in your community, then your child probably has, too, no matter what his or her age. From overhearing adult conversations, exposure to television and radio coverage, to text messaging and social media postings, community violence is a topic that is difficult to avoid. Your silence only contributes to your children’s fears. That’s why it is important for you to find opportunities to talk to your child about the incident in ways that are comforting and age appropriate.
- Ask your child what they already know. Start by asking your child what they know or have heard about the incident. Listen carefully for misinformation, misconceptions and for underlying concerns or fears.
- For help talking with preschool age children, look at Talking with Kids about News from PBS Parents and Parent Tips for Helping Preschool Age Children After Disasters from Psychological First Aid – Field Operations Guide.
- For help talking to older children and adolescents, look at Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do from the National Institute of Mental Health or Restoring a Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting: Tips for Parents and Professionals. Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress.
- Gently correct inaccurate information. Use simple, clear and age-appropriate language to explain what really occurred.
- Encourage your child to ask questions. Let your child lead the conversation so that they can express their concerns and fears. Then answer their questions truthfully and in a way they can understand and be sure to pay attention to their underlying emotions. For example, a young child may ask if the same type of violence could happen at your place of work. What the child is really concerned about is the likelihood a similar violent act could happen to you. Be honest, but help your child feel safe. You may also want to talk to your child about how you, as a family, could help the victims if they are friends, neighbors or members of your community.
- Limit media exposure. Limit your child’s exposure to all forms of media, particularly the sounds and images associated with the violence. Even when children seem to be focused on something else, they are often aware of what’s going on in the background. So limit television, radio and online exposure to the news and any dramas that cover the topic. As a rule, you should not allow very young children to see or hear any messages on TV or radio about the incident. For help in how to manage media exposure, read Tips for Parents on Media Coverage from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
- Be a positive role model. Consider sharing your feelings about the incident with your child in a way they can understand. Let them know that you, too, are sad or feel badly for the families of victims. You should also share with them how you cope with your feelings and thoughts. Be sure to talk about positive reactions to the event as well, such as how people helped each other during and after the tragedy.
- Be patient. Whether your child is very young or a teenager, he or she is likely to exhibit changes in behavior in response to community violence. This is normal. So you’ll need to be extra patient, caring and loving while your child works through their feelings. If, however, negative changes in behavior continue over weeks and months, you may need to reach out to your child’s doctor or a mental health professional to get the support your child needs to move forward.
If a death occurred and it’s someone your child knew, you can find helpful tips for talking about death at Guiding Adults in Talking to Children About Death and Attending Services from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Books for Kids
Everybody Has Feelings: Todos Tenemos Sentimientos: The Moods of Children. C.E. Avery. Gyphon House. For ages 2 to 5.
A Terrible Thing Happened. Margaret M. Holmes. Dalmation Press. Franklin, Tennessee. For ages 4 to 7.
Glad Monster, Sad Monster: A Book About Feelings. E. E. Emberley. Little Brown & Company. New York, New York. For ages 4 to 8.
Why Did It Happen? Janice Cohen. Morrow Junior Books. New York, New York. For ages 5 and up.
I Can Make My World a Safer Place: A Kid’s Book about Stopping Violence. Paul Kivel. Hunter House Inc. Publishers. Alameda, California. For ages 6 to 11.
Reactions. Allison Salloum. Centering Corporation. Chicago, Illinois. For ages 9 to 12.
Books for Parents
Children and Trauma: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Heal. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, California.
The Scared Child: Helping Kids Overcome Traumatic Events. Joy Berry, Children’s Press, Chicago, Illinois.