“Parents are unsure of how to explain the reasons for the violence, or how to explain death or severe injury to their children. In some situations, the entire subject is avoided in families. Although the urge to avoid is understandable, it communicates a powerful message to children: This is an issue that is too big and scary to mention; this is an issue that the adults do not want to talk about. The absence of explanation to children also gives rise to misunderstandings about the causes of the violence. It becomes easier for children to blame themselves or somehow misattribute the causes of the violence.”
– Betsy McAlister-Groves & Barry Zuckerman (1997, p. 187)
Parents are often reluctant to talk to kids about violence. Some may find it a difficult subject to think about themselves and fear they won’t have the right answers. Others don’t want to unduly disturb their children by discussing such a difficult and potentially scary topic. Whatever the reasons, this tendency to avoid the subject is not aligned with the realities of the world we live in.
Why you should talk with kids about violence
The truth is that kids have had regular exposure to violence and aggression since they were toddlers. Whether it’s the time they got bopped with a block after taking a playmate’s toy or the countless hours spent watching cartoon characters being smashed by anvils, violence has been a part of their life from the very beginning. As children grow into grade school, they start watching movies and television shows which depict more realistic violence. They may learn about violent acts in the world at large from newscasts or from other kids at school. So by avoiding the subject, you’re merely leaving kids to make sense of violent acts on their own. Kids are more likely to be relieved than scared by discussions on the topic.
Tips for talking to kids about violence in eyeryday life
1. Avoid sit-down talks. Try to make it an ongoing conversation that you have throughout everyday life, especially for kids living in chronically violent neighborhoods.
2. Utilize the media. When you witness violence on television, try to periodically use this as a teachable moment to talk about how violence is portrayed in movies versus its real-world impact.
3. Be sure to read and follow the additional guidelines in our earlier chapter on explaining difficult events, if you haven’t already.
Telling kids about a violent episode or event
If you’re dealing with a specific violent event, take the following approach:
1. Start by asking children what they know or what they saw and ask if they have any questions about it. It always helps to get their perspectives first.
2. While you shouldn’t try to hide a violent event from your kids, they don’t need to hear about every gory detail, either. You should speak matter-of-factly to them about what occurred without getting graphic.
3. Be sure to include emotions as part of the conversation. Ask them what they are thinking about, what sensations they felt at the time, what they are feeling now, and so on.
4. It’s usually best not to lead kids on by withholding information about the full scope of what occurred. When a child’s playmate or someone they know dies in a violent event, parents may be tempted to say they were hurt without letting them know that they were killed. This type of buffering may seem logical in the moment, but it tends to backfire. Your child is bound to find out eventually, so telling them half-truths like this only postpones the inevitable. Furthermore, it adds a period of potential worry and anxiety between the time you give them this false information and the time they find out the truth, thus dragging out the process. Worrying that someone you know is hurt badly and languishing in the hospital can be more stressful for children than the truth.