Suggestions for talking with children about tragedies and violence

Discover age-specific suggestions that can help guide conversations with children during and after tragedies.

The tragedy at the Newtown, Conn. elementary school cuts across every community. No matter your zip code, you never imagine that something that profoundly horrible could occur in your neighborhood. Instinctively, we nurture and protect our children from harm – that’s one of our roles as parents, teachers and family members. When catastrophic events – whether it is a school shooting, hurricane or a tsunami – occur, it disrupts our core.

If you’re not sure how to talk with your children about violence there are thoughtful resources for families and caregivers that provide suggestions. All practical, research-based resources remind us to take an age-appropriate approach when talking with children about violence.

Early-elementary school-aged children need brief and simple information balanced with reassurances that their schools and homes are safe; they also need to know that adults are there to protect them. Turn-off television and radio reports, maintain regular routines and patiently respond to questions to their level of understanding. 

Upper-elementary and middle school-aged questions will be more direct; they may have difficulty separating reality from fantasy. Share what schools and families do to provide safe places. Again, reassure them that their school and home is safe, and that the adults in their life will work to protect them.   

Upper middle and high school may vocalize their thoughts about the violence in schools and communities. They may share concrete suggestions to make their neighborhood and school safer. Talk about the roles that they play in maintaining a safe school.  That can range from participating in anti-violence programs, learning conflict resolution skills, and if they or a friend is struggling knowing how to seek assistance.

Peer helping programs such as Michigan State University Extension 4-H Natural Helpers provides training for teens to learn how to take care of themselves, effective ways to help their friends and ways to contribute to a safe and supportive school environment. Initially, Natural Helpers participate in a 25-hour training which typically is a retreat format. Research in 2005 of six Michigan schools which had implemented Natural Helpers showed that school staff members reflected that 70 percent are able to effectively help students; a youth participant who had been trained as Natural Helpers commented,”It helps me in my relationships with others and how to deal with conflict.”

Cyfernet provides an extensive on-line resource center of peer reviewed resources from universities across the nation. The broad categories include: early childhood; school-age; teens; parent/family; and community.  The National Association of School Psychologists also has a wide range of online resources to support parents, teachers and others working with children. 

Through-out the next few weeks take time to review resources which support and sustain us through difficult conversations.

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