Talking to Young Children about Newtown

by Diane E. Levin - December 15th, 2012.
Filed under: Pretend & Real Violence. Tagged as: , , .

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.

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