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How to Talk to Your Kids about Violence and Terrorism

Don't assume they don't know, or that you must have all the answers

Sarina Behar Natkin of GROW Parenting says kids will sometimes piece information together "like a game of telephone," so parents need to provide context and guidance.


Editor's note: This story was originally written a few years ago, primarily in response to acts of terrorism. The advice for parents is as valuable as ever and certainly applies to a tragedy such as the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. -- Julie Hanson, May 18, 2018

Orlando, Brussels, Nice, Dallas and now Las Vegas. It’s easy to imagine these cities in the context of family trips and vacations, but each has been the site of brutal and heartbreaking acts of terrorism — domestic and foreign — over the past several months. It was nearly impossible to not be reminded of the tragedies in the weeks after they unfolded; on television, images online, in social media feeds, in conversations all around us. As adults, these events are nearly impossible to comprehend, so how can we possibly explain them to our children?

“The assumption should be that kids are going to hear things; they will scan the headlines in the checkout line at the grocery store and on your devices. And often they piece together information like a game of telephone,” says Sarina Behar Natkin, alicensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW), parent educator and co-founder of GROW Parenting. 

“Children are fantastic observers, but poor interpreters,” says Natkin. “If we don’t talk to them about what they are seeing and hearing, they will interpret the information on their own, and their takeaway may be exactly the opposite of what we want it to be. When we avoid the conversation, we can actually create more fear and anxiety in our kids.”

Instead, Natkin stresses that it’s during these times when we, as parents, need to model for our children how we want them to process information about upsetting news. 

“You children take their cues from you,” agrees Dr. Megan Chiarelli, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Swedish Medical Center. 

Natkin says one common question from parents is, “Maybe they won’t hear about it, so why bring it up?” She cautions, “Do not assume you know what they do or don’t know about. You may have control about what they’re exposed to at home, but you don’t know what conversations your child overheard at the playground, from other parents, or picked up from the news as you scanned channels, or what headlines they read while you waited in line to check out at the grocery store. It often results in a jumble of misinformation.”

So what should a parent do? Tackle the conversations in an age-appropriate way to determine what children may have heard, and any concerns they may have as a result. 

Rather than assume your child is aware of certain things, or trying to guess how they may be interpreting things, approach them with a question: “Did you hear about anything happening in the news today?”

For a young child, say, 3 or 4 years old, you can confirm and correct what they may be hearing with information that is worded in terms they can understand, such as, “Some people were hurt far away. We are safe. But I am feeling sad,” says Natkin. 

When an older child, in first, second or third grade, confirms that they’ve been hearing about certain events, the next question you should ask is, “What did you hear?” This is the opportunity to correct misinformation. 

“Tweens and teenagers are going to learn about things on their own, and it’s up to parents to seek out what they have heard, what they are thinking, and to use those opportunities to really explore their kid’s worldviews and help them tackle their fears,” says Chiarelli. 

Natkin says she emails her 11-year-old daughter news articles to read regarding current events. This allows Natkin to provide insights that she herself has vetted and sees value in, and use them as a conversation opener. 

None of these have to be long conversations, she says. Have short talks, check back in, and keep the door open. You want to send the message to your children that it’s OK to talk with you about things that are worrying them, and that they can come to you with questions and concerns. 

“The goal is not to make your child’s fears go away,” says Natkin, “but to help them be OK with their feelings and to take action to move forward.” 

The best way to move past fear, Natkin says, is through action. She recommends that you use these opportunities to help your children understand what you can do to stay safe, be protected or make an impact by writing letters to legislators about gun control, as well as by putting together emergency kits or creating family plans for a crisis, or volunteering to help support those affected by an incident. 

Chiarelli recommends a similar tactic: “Talk with your children about what they should do or what you would do in a particular situation — whether it is traveling abroad when an incident happens, or near a protest or riot, or simply stopped by a police officer.” 

She acknowledges that these conversations can be difficult, but insists these are conversations that parents should have with their children to help them be more aware and empowered.


Want to be ready for other tough conversations? Check out:

How to Talk to Your Kids about Race

How to Talk to Your Kids about Sex Ed

How to Talk to Your Kids about Bullying

How to Talk to Your Kids about Climate Change

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