Talking To Children About Violent and Shocking Events

Police Rescue Truck

Police Rescue Truck

“Together” is the watchword for dealing with news of violence or death. “What can we do together, as a family, to remember those who died, and offer our caring?” is a healing question.

Patty Wipfler, Hand in Hand Parenting


As the Sydney Seige in the CDB ran its course and we woke up this morning to the tragic and sad news that people have died, we have been exposed graphic details and disturbing images of the event. We may have family and friends who are directly affected in large or small ways. Our hearts go out to the people caught in the middle of the drama, to the police and emergency services employees who put themselves on the line to deal with the situation, and to the communities who are touched by this event and the backlash which will inevitably follow.   Even if we managed to avoid becoming pre-occupied with events as they unfolded (and I certainly did not) it will in any case play out over weeks on our television screens, radios and newsfeeds.

As adults, we can put these events into a bigger context. We know that people can and will band together to pull through. Our children don’t always have such a big picture and it makes it hard for them to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing.

It is not helpful for very young children to know all the details of a well-publicized crisis. They can’t digest exposure to such human irrationality, senseless violence and suffering.  And they are affected by the way the adults around them are reacting. Often, these reactions can make them feel unsafe.

Here are some ways you can help your children understand these events:

  • If you are affected by the disaster, find an adult to listen to you for a while when the children are not around. Watching a disaster unfold, let alone being directly affected by it, can make us feel scared and concerned. Our children get worried when we get worried.       We will be able to communicate about it in ways that are helpful to our children if we are not ourselves upset, angry or grief stricken. With a good listener, we can release those feelings, and begin to put what has happened into a broader context of how much people care about one another.
  • Shield children from the media. Even seemingly small details can worry a child. TV reports, newspaper photographs, and radio commentary can communicate that adults do not feel safe, in charge, or trustful of others. Exposure to the graphic images in newspapers or on TV, and the interpretations of news people can be frightening. It is easy to underestimate the effects that these images have on children. Get your news after the children have gone to bed, or while you’re commuting in your car.
  • With your children, concentrate on the present moment, on the goodness of being together, and on moving forward in your daily routine, rather than on the details of the disaster.
  • Explain the events in general terms, and in terms that your child can understand. Let them ask the questions, answer as generally as possible and don’t volunteer more information that they are asking for.   Also offer reassurance. For example you could acknowledge that sometimes some people get hurt in ways which leave them angry and not able to think well. They may do things which hurt other people, but lots of people are working to stop them from doing that and to keep people safe.   However, we don’t have all the answers, and sometimes people will get hurt.
  • Focus on the positive, on stories of compassion, concern and co-operation: You can explain that people will learn from what happened, and point also to the co-operation of many thousands of people around the world and the help that has arrived at the scene. As this drama has unfolded, there have been many positive things – the press has, by and large, co-operated to help the police deal with the crisis, people all over Sydney have offered to accompany anyone who does not feel safe (#IllRideWithYou), all sorts of people have gone to local churches, synagogues and mosques to express support in resolving the crisis. There are many positive stories to tell.  As Patty Wipfler says in the article linked below,
  • Give explicit reassurance to children who are exposed to graphic images on TV or to tense, distressed adult talk. Tell them they are safe, that you will keep them safe, and that you are doing what you can to respond to the news they have heard. Your children need as much reassurance as you can give that harm won’t come to them.
  • Expect that your children may show their upsets in odd ways: Children often can’t tell us directly what is wrong, but they will find a series of small things to be upset about – you have served up the wrong food, they want to sit in the car where their brother is sitting, they can’t find their favourite toy. These small upsets are often how children bring up much bigger worries – sometimes worries so big they cannot articulate them, or face them directly. Avoid asking “why” – instead, just listen. You might say “I’m sorry that you can’t find your toy.” And then listen to their upset. Don’t step immediately to fixing the problem. Trust me, it is probably not (much) about the toy.
  • When you have some time, do some Special Time: this is a one-on-one playtime where, for a measured amount of time, you tell a child you will play with them just how they want. Don’t make suggestions, give advice or try to teach. In this time, children will often show us their concerns in what and how they choose to play. Our relaxed enthusiasm for them at these times is a healing balm.
  • Find opportunities to laugh: laughter dissolves fear. Whenever we can put aside our seriousness, put the children in charge, play the fool, the less competent one, and join in (and be the butt of) their jokes, they will laugh. Trust that this laughter will also help to wash away tensions which they, and you, are carrying.

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