Violent Times … and How to Talk to Your Kids About Them

Last week started with a series of pipe bombs sent through the mail to various U.S. political figures and ended with a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead, most of them elderly. Authorities say the man arrested in this shooting posted anti-Semitic messages on a social network called Gab, something most parents probably didn’t even know existed.

After the shooting, the Anti-Defamation League reported on their website that anti-Semitic incidents are up across the country. One reason: There has been a big increase in the number of anti-Jewish incidents at schools and college campuses in our nation.

Bombs, guns, extremist-friendly social media, hatred on campus. Any one of these topics alone can be difficult for parents to tackle — parents, whom it should be noted, may be dealing with their own fears over these issues.

How, then, do we talk about this with our children?

With age-appropriate honesty, says Carolina Vidal, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine. A parent’s first instinct may be to say nothing to a child. But that’s not realistic in our media-saturated environment, she says.

It’s better to ask your child what he or she has heard about a situation. Then listen and don’t brush off any anxiety, she says.

Validate their concerns, agrees Nadia “Tikvah” Womack, a licensed clinical professional counselor and child and adolescent therapist with Jewish Community Services.

After all, “the world can be scary and people are trying to take away our sense of safety,” she says.

But sharing this with our children can be hard. When our children come to us and say, “I don’t feel safe,” we may initially think that means we are not doing our job, Womack says, since keeping our children safe is our number one job. In these moments, parents should seek more information and ask their child what specifically is unsettling them. What are they seeing on the news? What are people telling them? What are they seeing the adults around them do?

Then ask children where they feel safe, whom they can go to for help in a dangerous situation and what kind of resources are available. Helping kids identify these things is important before an incident happens, but also when one occurs, she says, adding, “These are ongoing conversations.”

It’s also not a bad idea to limit exposure to the media for all children, Vidal says, but particularly for younger children who may think each time they see something on the news about a particular shooting that it is actually a new incident.

Vidal currently works with Johns Hopkins Hospital on a community violence prevention program. She grew up in Spain, where there was very little gun violence, but became interested in studying issues around trauma exposure after working with students from West Baltimore who often encountered violence.

Her response is not unique — after tragedy or trauma, most people want “to be able to do something, to have a purpose,” she says. Children are no exception. Teenagers can get involved in community or political projects. But younger children can have a purpose by helping their parents around the house.

Make sure home is “one of the safe places where your children can process,” Womack adds. But also allow yourself to process — parents need to be honest with themselves and how they are feeling.

“Sometimes as parents we are called upon to be not human, to put on the mask and the armor,” Womack says. But sometimes our job as parents is to “model what it means to be human.”

“How better off would the world be if it was OK to be human,” she adds.

Jessica Gregg is the managing editor of Baltimore STYLE and Baltimore’s Child.

  • UnitedHealthcare and Optum, the health benefits and services businesses of UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH), are opening Optum’s Emotional-Support Help Line, providing access to specially trained mental health specialists to support people affected by the recent mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Optum’s toll-free help line number, 866-342-6892, will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as necessary. The service is free of charge and open to anyone.
  • On Thursday, Nov. 8 the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland is hosting a panel for parents about talking with children about violence, childhood trauma and other issues. The event is free for Girl Scout parents, guardians and volunteers, but attendees must register at
  • For more reading material, Dr. Vidal recommends: Trauma Information from Parents from the Trauma Institute & Child Trauma Institute.

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