Talking With Children About Violence in the World

By Nancy Taylor

Growing up in the best of times is not easy. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center, terrorist threats and the recent developments in the Middle East, kids have more worries and questions than ever. How to we; parents and educators of children in the world today, help to alleviate some of their worries and answer their questions when we have questions ourselves? What is the best way to handle their worries, and how much information is too much? These are some of the questions parents, teachers and even experts in the areas of child development struggle to answer. We want to address the concerns of our children without creating more stress for them, and without dismissing their fears. It’s tricky. The Educators for Social Responsibility have provided some ways for parents and adults who work with children to listen and respond to the concerns of the kids they care for, and the following are some ways to help the kids in your life to navigate in the world as they know it today. ESR describes the three basic responsibilities of parents and educators when helping children as; listening to students, responding to students’ concerns, and teaching for understanding and promoting positive action.

Listening to Students

It can feel very passive just to listen without offering a whole lot of opinion or presenting feelings to children. But, listening is the most important way to assess concerns, determine how much information to provide and allow kids to sort through their feelings. We must be very careful to address the concerns of children without overwhelming them with our own feelings or giving them more information than they are ready or able to assimilate. If we do not listen carefully to them, we may not have a clear idea of what they already know or are confused about. The media coverage of events can be troubling to children, and we want to be sure we are available to alleviate some of the fears that a super-abundance of the 6 o’clock news can cause.

Parents need to be very careful to assess the readiness of their children when deciding how much information to provide and what types of media coverage they should allow their kids to watch. Very young children should be protected from exposure to graphic images of violence. Because of the media attention to world events and our children’s exposure to television, it is unlikely that they have no awareness, however. It is very important to find out what they know in order to address their concerns appropriately. The best way to do this is to listen carefully to spontaneous comments and questions. Lecturing them, even as an introductory attempt to get things going, is less likely to be helpful to them.

Listen to your children in a way that makes it clear to them that you respect what they have to say and are there to help them. Do not dismiss their fears or make them feel insecure by judging what they have to say, no matter how silly it may seem to you. They will open up to you if they see you as concerned and understanding. If they say something that you need clarification about, ask them what they mean. Don’t try to guess! Make sure to let them know that their feelings are ok – they are looking to you for affirmation. Sadness, fear and vulnerability are all normal, healthy feelings that they may not understand.

If you think your child has some questions but they don’t want to talk about them, don’t pressure them. Some children need time to assimilate what they know before they discuss it with anyone and some children are genuinely not concerned. Try to ask good opening questions, then give kids the time they need if they need it. If your children are not worried, that’s ok too. It’s possible they are secure that they are being taken care of and this stuff is simply not on their radar screen. Make sure you let them know you are available if they change their minds, though. Remember that some kids better express themselves in other ways, so allow them to play out their fears, encourage them to draw or paint, or, for older kids, give them a journal where they can write things down.

Respond to the Children’s Concerns

Even after we have heard what is on our children’s minds, it is best not to jump in and give them all the information we have or tell them exactly what we think. We need to reassure them, and make them feel secure without causing them to become overwhelmed or more fearful.

Misconceptions need to be clarified. For many children, the facts as they see them can become rather convoluted. Between the media coverage, the opinion of friends and the talk on the playground, their concept of the truth can become far from factual. Make sure to state in simple, straightforward terms, what the facts are. Much fear in kids is a function of what they do not know or are confused about. Allow your children to comment on what you have said, and be careful not to overshadow your feelings with theirs. Children crave approval, so they may be unwilling to open up to you if they are afraid their feelings may differ from yours.

If a child asks you something you do not feel qualified to answer, don’t panic! If it is information you need, there are plenty of ways to find it and kids will welcome looking up the answers to their questions together. If it is a more thought provoking question, something like; ‘That is an interesting question. I don’t know that anyone has an answer to it right now, but many experts are looking at it and trying to figure it out” will reassure them that conflicts can be resolved in an orderly way. Answering their questions calmly will reassure them that nothing is so scary that it can’t be talked about and even difficult problems have solutions.

If your child seems overly fascinated or excited about these events, or has a lot of rage or retaliation fantasies, this is normal as well. Often when these events are reported there is a sense of excitement in the delivery of information, and most kids have some fantasies about ‘smashing the enemy.’ It is very difficult for kids to understand with empathy the depth of human suffering war and violence can cause. Try to help your child to explore multiple perspectives, including those which may not be broadcast as frequently.

Teaching for Understanding and Promoting Positive Action

When we find that we have a common ‘enemy,’ we will undoubtedly find an increase in rumors, misinformation and prejudicial comments. Rumors that cause the behavior any particular group of people to be falsely generalized can be very damaging. Children who have family ties to any group that is unpopular for any reason can be the target of teasing, bullying or other forms of harassment. It is very important to help our kids to understand how prejudices develop, thereby eliminating the tendency for one-dimensional images of any group to become rampant. This is very difficult, but parents and educators need to be mindful of these prejudices and send a strong message to students that diversity in culture and faith are welcomed in the school and in the community. Parents who make their feelings of racial tolerance known to their children are helping them to put a human face on other cultures.

Teachers and parents will find framing a moral and civic-minded perspective one of the most difficult challenges they face when educating kids about some of the challenges they will face in today’s society. There are few quick simple answers to the complex political, international and judicial issues that the threat of terrorism, war and weapons of mass destruction pose. Making students knowledgeable about government, international relations and social responsibility will help them to think clearly and make mature assessments. Teaches and parents should take care to answer questions and address concerns with empathy, understanding, and keep in mind that there is a wealth of information available to them to help them deal with some of these difficult issues.

The present climate we face in our world today forces parents and schools to band together to help all students, from pre-school and kindergarten through adolescents and college age, to understand the present climate of our world. Students should be encouraged to discuss their concerns, assimilate information, and be empowered to help themselves and those around them. These are difficult times, but they are not times without hope. When we properly communicate with our children, we give them the tools they need to understand the facts, deal with feelings and understand human frailty and suffering.

This information was compiled from information provided by ESR. ESR, or The Educators for Social Responsibility, is a non-profit organization developed to help educators create safe, caring, respectful, and productive learning environments. They also help educators work with young people to develop the social skills, emotional competencies, and qualities of character they need to succeed in school and become contributing members of their communities. For more information visit their web site


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