Q: With so many things going on in the news about kids, suicide and school violence, how do I speak to my child and what should I say? – Allison, Glendale
A: As acts of violence continue to shock us and shake us to our core we, as adults, have a hard time wrapping our brains around it. Often as parents we feel like we need to have all of the answers before talking to our children and, devoid of an answer that makes sense, we stay silent. However, we must talk to our children about what is happening. It is important that our children know that we are just as confused and upset by what has happened as they are AND that they are safe.
In an effort to not give children more information than they need or can handle, ask them questions about what they know. Too often when we communicate with our children, we talk to them – not with them. Find out what your child knows, wonders about, and fears. Difficult conversations can be had while driving in the car (it takes the pressure off of staring at each other) or while playing a simple card game. Start with, “Why do you think kids bully each other?” Or, “What do you know about what is happening in schools?” Or whatever topic that is prevalent in the news regarding children/violence/schools, etc. Then listen. Children are incredibly insightful and having meaningful conversations with them will provide great insight as to what they are thinking about, what they know or understand about the situation and what they are afraid of. Then, armed with that information, you can give them more specific and age-appropriate reassurance.
Younger children will most likely need reassurance that they are safe and that their schools have taken the necessary precautions. So, if they ask specifically, point out the safety features at their school. Upper elementary and early middle school students may need more concrete information (such as a plan that you make with them if they have a lock-down). Again, you want to speak to their specific concerns. With upper middle school and high school students you can emphasize their role in following school rules (even if they don’t understand them), and to be alert to situations that do not feel right and teach them to speak up. They also need the reassurance that if they see a situation or find out about a circumstance that they don’t know how to handle that they can still come to you. If they hear, for example, about a student that has threatened to commit suicide, let them know that they can tell you and you will handle it. Often kids know about situations but do not tell adults because they don’t want their friend or the person to find out and be mad at them. Let them know that you will handle it and that they can “blame” you, giving them an out.
During times when acts of violence are being reported heavily in the news, make sure you are guarding what they are watching even more carefully. If they do see or hear something, make sure you talk to them right away about how it makes them feel and help them to process their feelings.
It is also important to look for unspoken signs in children that they are in distress. Children speak through their behaviors. If you notice changes in sleeping, eating, or your child starts acting out, it is their way of letting you know that they are feeling distress. If you do not feel you are able to help them, seek a child therapist who can help your child learn to process and regulate their emotions.
Lisa M. Smith, Ph.D., is available for individual consultation and has published nine books, including The Tao of Parenting: The Path To Peaceful Parenting. Her website is: www.MonsterProofYourChild.com. (Lisa provides guidance and tools on helping children deal with their “Monsters” – real or imagined!)