Seattle's Child

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Talking to kids about violence

Talking to kids about gun violence

Tips on how to answer questions, ease fears and offer hope

Even if you’d rather not think about it, your kids may have questions about news of crime, war, or acts of violence.

Whether these heartbreaking events may be close to home, in another community or across the globe, exposure to news of this real-life violence can affect your child’s well-being. As much as we want to protect our kids from thinking about it, communicating about tragedy or loss can help them process these events.

How can you talk with kids about scary news about acts of violence? Read on for ideas.

Talking to kids about violence: tips for parents

Even if you limit their exposure, your kids have probably heard bits and pieces as events unfold. Whether it’s world news or challenges facing your own family, here are some ways you can talk to kids about violence and tough issues:

Help them feel safe. Children want to know that they are safe and their families are, too. Remind them of the ways they are safe and the measures that help keep them safe like adults at school watching out for them. This doesn’t mean downplaying their fears or concerns but addressing them and helping them cope with distressing thoughts.

Explain the news to them in an age-appropriate way. Gauge your kids’ prior knowledge, questions and concerns, and consider your child’s age, temperament and sensitivity when discussing difficult events. For most kids, I recommend meeting them with straight answers and emotional support. You don’t have to have all the answers, provide information they aren’t asking about, or even give a lot of detail, especially with younger kids. Ask them what they already know and what questions they have. You can explore answers and information sources together.

Try to have these conversations when your children are receptive and engaged. Starting a talk when they are tired or hungry will make it that much more challenging.

More tips for those tough talks

Validate their feelings. Acknowledge what your kids are feeling and what they’ve said to you. You can use validating phrases like “I feel that way too” or “That really makes sense to me.” Let your kids know that it’s completely normal to be curious, confused and even upset about current events. Sometimes kids may have reactions like seeming uncaring or a morbid fascination. These can be ways children work through their feelings.

You can also validate feelings by giving your children a hug or giving them the space they might need to think and process. It can be hard for children to express themselves, and you can help them find their words through conversation and books, or for older children, encouraging journaling.

Foster open conversations. Ask your kids how they are feeling and offer the information they’re asking for. Children are in the process of developing their moral beliefs, and “big talks” might come up. You may have to explain the basics of prejudice, civil and religious strife or military conflict. It’s OK to say that you don’t know why bad things happen: You’re recognizing that these are hard topics.

Always give hope. Give children the reassurance that their extended family and the community are committed to keeping everyone healthy and safe during these times. Remind them that times won’t always feel so uncertain. You can focus on what connects us and stand up against hate speech, violence and discrimination to resist things that divide us. Finding ways to help whether through donations, volunteering or supporting others can foster hope too.

At the end of the day, we all need breaks sometimes from the news and tough topics. Encourage kids to take a break from news (and you can, too), and just change the focus — get outside and play, listen to music or spend time with friends.

If your children struggle with fear or thoughts about events in the news, you can seek help when you need it from your primary care provider.

This article first appeared December 26, 2023.

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About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.