Talking to Young Children about Newtown

by Diane E. Levin - December 15th, 2012

I listen to the news about the tragedy, in Newtown, CT, with many complex emotions—deep sadness for the children and families, deep distress that another tragedy like there could happen, anger that guns are so readily available in this country, and much, much more.

But one thing I’ve been hearing does hearten me—the fact that almost immediately after the tragedy, along with talk about the tragedy, there was discussion about how adults can talk to children about what they hear about it on the news. Yes, as news reports about Newtown take over the mind of the nation—even of the world, children do hear about it and need our help dealing with what they hear. And thank goodness, there are now experts and resources out there that will help us do that. And all of us who work with children and families should listen to and read what is said and use what we learn to work with children.

This has not always been the case. After the Columbine school shooting, and September 11, 2001 attacks, and then after the US began its war in Iraq, there were few materials available to help adults and teachers help children, especially young children, deal with the violence they were hearing in the news. So after each event I scurried to try to put together materials to help parents and teachers work with young children.

As I listen to discussion in the news now about talking to children, I still to not hear that much about how to work with young children. So, I just reread what I wrote several years ago, and it still seems quite relevant to the needs of young children hearing about Newtown now. So here it is.

I hope this information helps make your discussions with young children a bit easier and effective. And I hope even more that the country will finally take the kinds of actions that are necessary to make such discussions someday become a thing of the past.

I. ARTICLE IN EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, April 2003.
“When the World Is a Dangerous Place: Teachers Can Play an Important Role in Helping Young Children deal with Violence in the News.

Available at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr03/vol60/num07/When-the-World-Is-a-Dangerous-Place.aspx

II. GUIDELINES FOR PARENTS AND TEACHERS FOR “HELPING YOUNG CHILDREN DEAL WITH NEWS VIOLENCE”

1. PROTECT CHILDREN, ESPECIALLY YOUNG CHILDREN, AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE FROM EXPOSURE TO NEWS VIOLENCE AND FROM HEARING ADULTS TALK ABOUT IT. While it’s rarely possible to protect them fully from news violence, having safety & security predominate is still vital for healthy development.

2. TRUSTED ADULTS HAVE A VITAL ROLE TO PLAY HELPING CHILDREN SORT OUT WHAT THEY SEE & HEAR & FEEL SAFE. When exposed to violence children need trusted adults to help them safely work out their ideas, often over an extended period of time. How you react plays a big role in determining how they think & feel & what they learn.

3. BASE WHAT YOU SAY ON THE AGE, UNDERSTANDINGS & CONCERNS OF THE CHILDREN.

• YOUNG CHILDREN WON’T UNDERSTAND VIOLENCE AS ADULTS DO. When they see or hear about something scary, they often relate it to themselves and worry about their own safety. They tend to focus on one thing at a time and the most salient aspects of what they see. Because they don’t have logical causal thinking, it’s hard for them to figure out the logic of what happened and why, or sort out what’s pretend and real. They relate what they hear to what they already know which leads to misunderstandings. “Bad guys shoot guns in schools, just like on TV! I didn’t see any yet in my school.” “Mommy works in a skyscraper; it can blow up too!” or “Planes in the war carry bombs; so planes I see in the sky carry bombs too!”

• OLDER CHILDREN BEGIN TO THINK ABOUT WHAT UNDERLIES AN EVENT AND POSSIBLE REAL WORLD IMPLICATIONS. They use more accurate language and make logical causal connections, but still don’t understand all the meanings and can develop misunderstandings and fears. Find out the meanings behind their language and base your responses on what they seem to know and be asking.

4. START BY FINDING OUT WHAT CHILDREN KNOW. If a child raises the issue, ask, “What have you heard about that?” You can start a conversation with, “Have you heard anything about a plane crash [or bombs]?” Or, “Have you heard anything about people getting hurt with guns?” If they say, “yes” then you can ask, “What did you hear?” If they say, “No” more onto something else. But if you think others are likely to raise the issue in your young child’s environment, in which case a bit of very simple preparation might be in order, not the whole story..

5. ANSWER QUESTIONS AND CLEAR UP MISCONCEPTIONS THAT WORRY OR CONFUSE. You don’t need to provide the full story. Just tell children what they seem to want to know. Don’t worry about giving “right answers” or if children have ideas that don’t agree with yours. You can help children learn to distinguish real from pretend violence. You can calmly voice your feelings and concerns.

6. SUPPORT CHILDREN’S EFFORTS TO USE PLAY, ART, AND WRITING TO WORK OUT AN UNDERSTANDING OF SCARY THINGS THEY SEE AND HEAR. It’s normal for children to do this in an ongoing way; it helps them work out ideas and feelings; it shows you what they know and worry about. Open-ended (versus highly-structured) play materials—blocks, airplanes, emergency vehicles, miniature people, a doctor’s kit, markers and paper—help children with this.

7. BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR SIGNS OF STRESS. Changes in behavior such as increased aggression or withdrawal, difficulty separating or sleeping, or troubles with transition are all signs that additional supports are needed. Protecting children from violent media images, maintaining routines, providing reassurance & extra hugs can help children regain equilibrium.

8. HELP CHILDREN LEARN ALTERNATIVES TO THE HARMFUL LESSONS THEY MAY BE LEARNING ABOUT VIOLENCE AND PREJUDICE. Talk about non-violent ways to solve conflicts in their own lives. Help them look at different points of view in conflicts. Point to positive experiences with people different from themselves. Try to complicate their thinking rather than tell them how to think.

9. DISCUSS WHAT ADULTS ARE DOING TO MAKE THE SITUATION BETTER AND WHAT CHILDREN CAN DO TO HELP. Children can feel secure when they see adults working to keep the world safe. And taking meaningful action steps themselves also helps children feel more in control.

10. TALK WITH OTHER ADULTS. Work together to support each other’s efforts to create a safe environment for children. This includes agreeing to protect children from unnecessary exposure to violence. Talking together can also help adults meet their own personal needs.

by Diane E. Levin, Ph.D.

The Parent Blame Game: What to Do When Screens Win Out

by Diane E. Levin - March 20th, 2012

Originally posted on Wheelock College’s Aspire Wire March 20, 2012

The Boston Globe article, “In Reversal, Kids Nag Parents to Step Away from Their Phones, Laptops” by Beth Yeitell (March 8, 2012, available here) once again blames parents for doing it wrong.  They are spending too much time with technology and screens instead of spending time with their children.

I am not saying that parents aren’t spending too much time on screens, but it would be helpful instead of blaming parents to ask, “Why are parents spending so much time with screens and what can we do about it, instead of just blaming them?”  The fact is that parents are victims of many of the same forces in society that their children are—including being lured to screens.

The parents of today grew up when media and technology were becoming a much bigger force in their lives than it had been for their parents—computers, video games, cell phones, became regular and accepted forces in their families during their childhoods.  I began studying this increase in the middle 1980s because of concerns that teachers were voicing about the changes they were seeing in children’s play, behavior and skills.  It was this work that led me to write my book, Remote Control Childhood:  Combating the Hazards of Media Culture,[1] in 1998.  Screen use has been steadily on the rise in the lives of children and adults every year since I began studying it.

We know from research that screens can be addictive.  They replace active engagement with real things in the real world.   As children, today’s parents learned to be “remote controlled.”  Screens lured them into following someone else’s “program” instead of their learning how to come up with own.  They became used to being bombarded with a continuing onslaught of action, excitement that filled their time making real world activities often seem boring.  They interacted with other people less, thereby learning less about how to have caring and connected relationships.  More and more of their lives became dependent on using screens to meet their needs, to get things done.

Why should parents suddenly know how to turn their screens off and actively engage in the world and with their own children when they become parents?  Why should they know how to turn off all the ways their lives have become dependent on getting things done using screens?  Why should they know how to resist all the marketing that tells them if you just had this or that new screen or screen product your life would be better, you would be happier?

Many parents do not know how to disconnect from their screens and reconnect with the real world and with their own children.  Let’s help them learn to turn off their screens and engage with their children in big and little ways.  For example:  they can choose a regular time everyday when the whole family has no screens and does something together.  But then we need to help them figure out engaging activities that they can do together when the screens are turned off.

It’s time to stop blaming parents for not knowing how to resist the hazards created by modern day society.   It’s time to deal directly and thoughtfully with all the ways media and technology are changing childhood, parenthood and the wider society.


[1] Published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, DC.