Talking to Kids About Mass Violence

A mom comforts a teen girl, who has her face in her hands.
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“What happened? Why are they sad?” asked 5-year-old Scarlett.

Tara and Jason were startled by their daughter’s question. Normally their two children slept during the early morning news. But today their daughter had walked in on TV coverage of a mass shooting.

Tara slowly said, “Someone killed a lot of people because he didn’t like them.”

Scarlett responded, “That’s really mean!”

Many parents are facing situations similar to Tara and Jason’s. No matter how careful, we can’t shield our kids from heart-wrenching yet all too familiar tragedies. As we are grieving one violent incident, another occurs. But how do we talk to our children about these events?

Start with you

Like most parents, you are likely unsettled by what seems to be an increase in mass violence. Since kids pick up on your nervousness and anxiety, how they’ll understand this hard subject starts with you. “Take the time to deal with your own emotions and grow your own faith in the midst of hearing about tragedies in the world,” says Daniel Huerta, vice president of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family. “Go for a walk, talk to your spouse behind closed doors or talk with trusted friends or a counselor. The first step in this process is to find a place of peace for yourself.”

I was a survivor of the 2012 mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. Within hours of the shooting, people around me were questioning where God was during such a horrific tragedy, whether He existed at all, or how He could possibly be a “good” God if He allowed these things to happen. I knew that I had to settle those questions for myself if I were to respond to anyone else.

I spent time in prayer, in God’s Word and talking with trusted pastors. I didn’t have all the answers afterward, and I was still grieving, but my faith in God grew stronger.

When discussing tragedies with kids, it’s OK to acknowledge that you have feelings of sadness about tragic events and admit that you don’t have all the answers, especially with older children. But children must learn that we are not meant to continue living in fear. “You want them to know that life is still to be lived,” says Huerta.

After the Aurora theater shooting, my teenage daughter and a couple of her friends asked the same question: Will you ever go see a movie at a theater again?

“Yes,” I told them. “I need to go to a theater soon just so I don’t let fear win. I don’t want to live my life in fear of the evil that a few people do. God has promised that He will never leave me or forsake me, and that empowers me.”

Know your children

Huerta encourages parents to understand their children’s personalities and maturity level, as well as their personal ability to process tragic news.

Is your child prone to worry? Does he or she have a strong personal walk with the Lord? Does he or she need time to reflect on events before engaging in deeper discussions? Your children will hear what you say through their own emotional lens and spiritual condition. Understanding a child’s unique personality will help you have effective and meaningful communication.

Then you need to listen.

After the Aurora theater shooting, my 14-year-old daughter, who also witnessed the killings, began sleeping on the couch in our living room. After a couple of weeks, she moved to the spare bedroom upstairs, even closer to her dad and me. Even though her spoken question was “Can I take over the spare room?” I knew her heart question was “Can I take as long as I need to heal from this horrible event?”

No matter the age, children will reveal what is bothering them, if you choose to listen to their words and watch their actions. Ephesians 4:15 says to speak the truth in love. Healthy emotional and spiritual growth can take place when we have honest discussions that are age appropriate. Don’t make up stories to make the world seem like a safer place, and don’t ignore your children’s questions. But also, don’t give your children more information than they need or have asked for.

Timing is Key

When discussing mass violence with older children, it’s tempting to pry, but you may simply have to wait until they are ready to share their feelings. Amy Paris, who holds a master’s degree in behavioral neuroscience, fielded calls from frantic parents after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, parents who wanted to know how to talk to their children. She urged parents not to force early conversations that kids may not be ready for.

“Limit exposure to the media,” Paris says. “Continue with normal activities as much as possible. Then, based on the child’s age and level of maturity, discuss the events with them. As parents, you know best how much they are able to comprehend and how much to share with them.”

Today Paris has conversations with her own teenage son. She says, “I’ll ask if something is bothering him, and he may reply yes or no. If yes, we talk. More often it is no, and I wait. In about a day, either he will bring it up, or I’ll ask again, and then he talks.” We need to be available and willing but not forceful with a child who isn’t quite ready to share his thoughts.

Consider, as well, when you have these conversations. For younger children, bedtime is not good for discussing violence. If they ask a question, though, suggest that you talk about it tomorrow. Otherwise, your nighttime talk may lead to nightmares or insomnia. Pick a time during the day when you won’t be in a hurry or constantly interrupted.

What is age appropriate?

Although every child is different, Focus on the Family’s Huerta gives the following basic guidelines for discussing man-made violence with children:

0 to 4

Children won’t understand what is happening. Avoid exposure to media. Give them hugs and let them know you love them.

4 to 7

For many kids, it’s important to keep the information brief and simple until they ask for more details. Tell them what you are doing to keep everyone in your family safe, even if you can’t guarantee that harm will never come to them. Give them practical steps, such as praying for victims and perpetrators. This helps kids feel empowered instead of helpless. Children at this age are also just beginning to understand the nature of evil, that everyone has the freedom to choose good or evil, and sometimes a person’s evil choices harm others. But God still cares for us, and He helps us through difficult times.

8 to 12

Some children in this age range can handle a mature conversation, while others can’t. Let your child determine the level of conversation. Your primary focus should be on the events of what happened, not a larger philosophical discussion. When kids become more vocal in asking questions about personal safety, they may need reassurance about what is being done to keep them safe. Have them express what they are curious about or what they fear. Pray together for victims as well as perpetrators. This helps children feel empowered rather than helpless. Reassure them that it is healthy to talk about sad or scary events.

Teens

By the time children reach this age, they are forming their own opinions about issues. They are developing their own faith, and they may be questioning where God is in all of this. Be willing to have deeper conversations and to listen as they process events. It’s OK to start more philosophical discussions with them about the news and to ask for their take on a specific tragedy. Help them consider how they see God responding in the situation through others who are helping victims.

For many children, not just teens, it’s good to consider John 16:33 together. Even though we will have troubling times in this life, we can still have peace through the knowledge that God has overcome the world. Point them to Scriptures that show how suffering, injustice and evil have been around since Adam and Eve first disobeyed God and sin entered the world. Evil and suffering are not new. Yet God loves people and desires to redeem everyone.

When they won’t talk

For some kids, face-to-face conversations are difficult. You can supplement your dialogue with journaling. Although kids can do this on their own, it’s healthy to have a parent-child notebook. Journaling back and forth in a notebook allows ongoing communication and time to process thoughts.

Consider texting with your child about news events. It is a less intimidating way to communicate about a tough issue for young people. Or ask your child to write a song or poem, or draw a picture to express her feelings. However you dialogue with your kids, be sure they know that God has not given them a Spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7, NKJV).

Danny Huerta is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed School Social Worker. He has maintained a private practice counseling families since 2004 and has written several articles in various publications. He was a contributing author in the Smart Groom’s Answer Guide: An Eye-Opening Guide to the First Year of Marriage and The First Five Years of Marriage: Launching A Life-Long Relationship. He has been a guest on the Focus on the Family Broadcast and is an ongoing contributor on the Focus on the Family Parenting podcast. He has also been a guest on many radio shows and news shows throughout the US covering various topics related to family and parenting.

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