Explaining Violence and Tragedy to Children

These days, elementary-school-age children have traded in their early childhood fears of nightmare monsters for terrifying real life fears. Learn how to talk with kids about violence and tragedy, such as school shootings.
My elementary age daughter likes to follow the news, especially the photos, every now and then. When she does this, I inevitably get the question of "what is this about?" Today, the headlines lead off with the story and photo "Fatal Shootings at High School." How do I help my daughter understand the violence and the grief that occurs in our world, especially when they occur in a setting that is suppose to be "safe?"
These days, elementary school age children have traded in their early childhood fears of nightmare monsters for terrifying real life fears. Shootings and terrorism top the list of many kids' fears. Terrorism, school shootings, and deadly natural disasters make big news.

Unfortunately, if your daughter surfs the Internet, reads the front page of your newspaper, or sees the first few stories on the TV news, she will be exposed to daily horrific tales and pictures. In the news media the adage, "If it bleeds, it leads" is the order of the day.

When it comes to news stories like this or natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, we need to provide our school age kids with an acknowledgment of their fears, give them enough information to understand the unusual nature of this particular crime or disaster (putting the fears into perspective), assure them that we and others (teachers, police, parents) are going to try to protect them ("Even though bad things happen sometimes, we are going to keep you safe"), and limit our own detailed discussions of these events in front of our kids and their exposure to graphic media accounts of these events.

As much as we would want to, we can't totally shield our children from the frightening aspects of our world. But we can diffuse their levels of fear and anxiety with appropriate information ("Do you know how safe airplane travel really is? What your friend Billy told you about planes crashing all the time isn't true. They're really very safe"), a healthy, truthful, optimistic perspective of life ("It's horrible when bad things happen like this that we really can't explain. Thank goodness they only happen very rarely. We're planning on living a safe, happy life. Count on it").We must offset the distorted world view we are force-fed daily by our popular news media.

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

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