I spend a great deal of time talking with kids about some of the worst things that can happen. I fumbled when it became time to talk with my son about what happened in Charlottesville, VA. Or, when it comes to school shootings or gun violence. And I’m a trauma therapist. I should know what to say, right? After all, my job is to speak with children about the worst things that can happen.
It’s different when you are a parent speaking to your own children. So, after I gathered my thoughts and remembered what I do know, I wanted to share them.
I hope this will be helpful to you, as you start having these hard conversations with your children. Talking about violence in the form what happened in Charlottesville, or when mass shootings occur, is hard. But children need to know it is ok to talk about what concerns us, even if we don’t know exactly what to say (or how to say it).
What can you do to help your child process what has become a terrible and recurring reality in our country? Here are some things I will be keeping in mind:
1) Talking to your child about Gun Violence: Have the conversation
Kids are excellent at detecting changes in others’ moods (especially at home), but they are poor interpreters of what they detect. If you are anxious, stressed, scared, or even just changing your normal Saturday routine — You should assume that your child is picking up on this. Without parents helping make sense of this for them, children can easily become anxious. They need you to be brave enough to initiate a conversation, preferably at a time when you are not distracted.
2) Talking to your child about Gun Violence: Reassure safety
As needed, talk about the steps that you will take to keep them safe today, as well as the presence of first responders and other law enforcement who are working to keep everyone safe. We have already noticed some new police vehicles driving into town (I’ve never seen a police mobile communication center before), and we have used this as an opening to talk about safety for the weekend.
3) Talking to your child about Gun Violence: Use familiar language
We use a lot of safety language in our home, so my 3-year-old son has a framework for understanding things in this way. He does not yet understand “hate,” but does understand being kind vs mean. So, our conversations may include something like this: “Some people are mean to people who are different from them. And sometimes these people get angry, and don’t make good choices to be safe.”
4) Talking to your child about Gun Violence: Convey your values
This is a great opportunity to share your values and why they are important. Whether that includes respect, peace, faith, diversity, or the dignity of all people. Maybe you want to explain why you are choosing to go to a lecture, pray, serve others, or go to a counter-protest. Help your child focus on the strengths of your beliefs, which will also set the stage for his/her value system to flourish down the road.
5) Talking to your child about Gun Violence: Listen more than you talk
We parents talk too much and often over-explain or answer questions that our children didn’t have. Take your cues from your child, and provide simple, clear answers. I often try to ask what my son thinks about his question before I jump in with my own answer. I am almost always astounded at his perceptiveness and perspective. Then I can fill in the gaps of his understanding
6) Talking to your child about Gun Violence: Schedule comforting activities
Especially if your child seems anxious, make sure to enhance a sense of connectedness throughout the day. Your child may also benefit from “helping activities” that allow her to express her positive values.
7) Talking to your child about Gun Violence: Remember… You got this!
As I tell parents in my office, you are the expert on your own child. You know their strengths, fears, developmental level, and way of viewing the world. You’ve got this! And if you mess up? We do our children a great service when we model owning our mistakes and repairing breaks in our relationships.
If you would like to speak to someone about any parenting issues where you feel stuck, or where you would like to grow, give us a quick call. Our receptionist will help you figure out if a parent coach or a counselor at our counseling practice in Richmond, VA would be a good fit for your needs.