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5 Guidelines to Help You Talk With a Child About Scary News

You and your child can face hard things together.

Key points

  • Children often hear about violent events through friends or media, so it is best to be ready to talk with them about it.
  • Before discussing a violent event with a child, it helps to find out what they already know, and then follow up with general facts.
  • When discussing violence with children, pointing out the "helpers" in the situation shows there is protection and offers reassurance.

Recently in the news, we've been hearing about mass shootings in our country. These are, sadly, frequent and very upsetting to all of us, particularly children.

Though we wish we could protect children from having to know about these shootings, they are learning about these events by overhearing other people talking, seeing headlines on the internet, and talking in the schoolyard to friends and older students. We certainly wish there were no violent occurrences, but for as long as there are, our experience shows that your child will be less negatively impacted if you have compassionate and honest conversations about them. Then, they learn about them from an adult they trust—you—who can help them as they take it all in. You are the one who answers their questions with care.

How to talk to children about violence

So, how can you provide a sense of safety and security for your child and yet give them honest information and answer their questions? We offer several guidelines:

  1. Before talking with your child, check in with yourself. How are you feeling about these shootings? Are you anxious about the safety of your family? Are you angry at the person or about it not being prevented? Are you sad about these deaths? Are you relieved it didn’t happen to you? How are you feeling about the anticipated conversation? Once you have understood and gotten support for your feelings, you are grounded to be able to be steady and sturdy with your child.
  2. Think about who your child is so you can anticipate how they might respond to potentially scary news in their world. Does your child get nervous in general? Might they feel angry about it? Do they keep their feelings in or let them out? What usually helps them when they are upset? Then of course, be ready to expect the unexpected, and most importantly, follow your child’s cues. Be with how they are, however that is.
  3. You can open the conversation by asking what your child knows about the incident in the news. This enables you to learn what correct or incorrect information they have gleaned and then offer them general facts, elaborating in response to their questions. We suggest giving them only what they ask and then pausing to see if there are further questions or concerns. You fill in further facts as they ask for them.
  4. As Fred Rogers said, “Look for the helpers." In every violent event, there are people stepping up to aid those affected. Point them out to your child: the police, the firefighters, the ambulance workers, the security forces. This shows that there is protection and still much good in the world, and offers fact-based reassurance. You can also think with them about how you and your family can help via donations or writing letters together to those affected or to political figures. Helping others is a way to feel less helpless ourselves and to contribute to good in the world.
  5. Your child may ask, “Are we safe?” You cannot truthfully guarantee any of us are safe forever. However, you can tell your children all the things you and their school do to keep them and your family from danger. You can let them know that although we are hearing about these shootings, they are rare, and, overwhelmingly, we are not in peril from that on a day-to-day basis.

A sample conversation between a parent and child

Here's how such a conversation might go:

Parent: Did you hear about anything happening in the news?

Child: I heard an eighth-grader say that a lot of people had been shot and died. Is that true?

Parent: Yes, we have learned that someone killed 11 people with a gun in one place, and a different person in a different place killed 7 people. The other people in those places are safe. That did not happen here [if you can say that truthfully]. Many people came to help where it happened—police and ambulances as well as people in the area. People are helping the families of those who died, too.

Child: Could that happen here?

Parent: The chances of that are very, very small, and we and your school do many things to keep you safe.

Child: I’m scared.

Parent: It can feel scary, but we are safe now, and we are together. Would you like a hug? We can talk to people we love too. Do you want to call Aunt Jane and tell her about it? Sometimes when you have been scared before, you have liked to draw. Would you like to do that now?

Child: No, not now.

Parent: Are you feeling other things?

Child: I don’t think so. Can we eat dinner now?

Parent: Sure, let’s warm up the tomato sauce, and then we can sit together to eat. If you have any other questions or want to talk about it more anytime, we’ll talk more."

Key points in the example are that the parent allows their child's feelings, offering reassurance but without shutting down or minimizing them. Also, it is very important to leave the door open for any follow-up conversations initiated by you to understand what else your child is hearing about it. We recommend always leaving room for questions and making sure your child knows that they can ask more questions anytime. This is not just one conversation. It is many, over time, as events evolve and more information is known. You keep an eye on your child and check in with them to know what else they are hearing and how it is affecting them.

These are scary times, and our children are hearing a lot about deaths due to illness, war, violence, and natural disasters. These guidelines can apply to any of those situations, fine-tuned for the specific event. Your child can face hard things with you at their side, ready to offer them even scary information, while providing realistic reassurance and your steady loving presence.

More from Elena Lister, MD and Michael Schwartzman, Ph.D., ABPP
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