Discussing Violence in the Media With Young Children

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violence in the media

In today’s world of technology at our fingertips, our children are often exposed through multiple social media outlets to the growing violence in our society. Each time I attempt to watch the news, I immediately find myself running to the remote to turn it off as my sons turn their attention to a report of violence, which immediately sparks questions from my children, and honestly … I have no idea how to answer these questions.

So, how do we as parents address the growing violence in our media with our young children?

Reaching out to Licensed Clinical Social Worker Catherine P. Jehle, LCSW, who has been practicing therapy with children, teens, adults, and their families in the Pensacola area since 2008, I posed this very question.
 
Catherine urges parents to allow the conversations to start naturally while ensuring that you never shut down your child’s questions.

“It’s impossible to censor our children from all violence, children are very perceptive and intuitive, and if we don’t have conversations with them about what they see or hear, they may begin to develop their own stories of the event and what that means for their safety.”  

Especially in younger children, Catherine offers the advice of “meet them where they are, at the base of their question, with honesty appropriate to their age and development.” 

This means that if your child asks a question, for example: “Why are they shooting at people?” As a parent, we answer the question: some people have guns and use them to hurt others, which is never okay. Of course, this is a much more complex situation, but Catherine cautions that our children might not be ready for that level of conversation and keep it simple.

Naturally, children are inquisitive and may ask more questions that will then allow you to elaborate, but now it is on the child’s own terms. This way, they can absorb the level of information they are currently capable of at that time. It’s always okay to admit you don’t understand something but reinforce that it’s still not okay.

If your child is not asking questions, but you notice a change in their demeanor, it is also a good time to ask your child, “how are you feeling?”, “Is everything okay?” to open the door for conversations, but allow your child to lead that conversation on their own terms.

Catherine expresses that being honest and forthcoming will help our children process what they are feeling the appropriate way. Always make sure to offer, “we can talk more if you need to,” when the conversation ends so they understand they can still come back later with more questions once they have further processed it all. 

Also, if you feel that you need to have this conversation with your child, it’s important to gauge your child’s feelings, which is often best in the child’s “language,” which is play. Catherine says this means if your child enjoys legos, offer to build with them or if they enjoy play dolls or riding their bike, do this activity with them as you provide the leading question, “so what happened?”  or “draw me a picture of how that feels, or what you remember” if they seem upset or you are aware of something happening, or just a general “is everything okay?”, to see what they know or how they are feeling about something.

“These can feel like big conversations, but there are a lot of opportunities all the time to have small conversations with your kids about ways to stay safe or about things they might see that make them upset or uncomfortable. For example, a simple statement from your child about a friend getting hurt on the playground can be a natural opening to talk about what to do when we see someone hurt or in danger.”

Now that the conversation has naturally started, where do we go from here?

If your child feels anxious or fearful over an event, what is the best way to help them feel safe again?

If your child is in a current state of anxiousness, Catherine Jehle recommends having them do some deep breathing, providing them with physical touch, which is very comforting, and reminding your child that they are now in a safe space. As the parent, you can take this opportunity to discuss with your child what they did during the event to stay safe, leading to either praising them for making a safe choice or discussing what a safe choice could have been. Both give your child a level of control they need to feel to decrease their fear and anxiety.

violence in the media“You want to empower your child,” Catherine says, “so that they know they have the power and a plan to keep themselves safe.”

If your child feels another person is hurting them, how do we educate our children on the best way to handle it?

It’s important for us as parents to ensure that our children know it is never okay to hurt another person or yourself. Often children are introduced to a high level of violence through television, video games, and even their environment, desensitizing them to violence.

“First, we need to give our children the skills to defuse an aggressive situation. Children should be encouraged to use their words appropriately to “work out their problems” with another person, and know when they need to “walk away” because the situation is about to result in violence.”

As a parent, I often tell my own children to “tell an adult” if someone is hurting them, but it often leads to each of my children constantly running to me to tattle. Catherine Jehle says it’s important for children to understand the difference between “telling” and “tattling.”

“Telling is when you give me information on someone being hurt or in danger to protect them or yourself. Tattling is when you are trying to get someone in trouble.”

In regards to both, it’s important to discuss with your child how it made them feel, then reference that you would not want to make another person feel that way to help them understand that violence has consequences and you can really hurt someone.

In closing, Catherine Jehle cautions that too much information can lead to developing anxieties, which is why it’s important to allow your child at any age to lead the conversation and for us as parents to keep our answers simple, straightforward, and honest. 

Provide an open and safe way for your children to communicate with you when they are ready.

Additional Resources for Families

Websites:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)

Psychology Today

Adult Books on Trauma and Children:

“What Happened to You?” by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey
“The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog” by Dr. Bruce Perry

Children’s Books on Trauma/Anxiety:

“A Terrible Thing Happened” by Margaret Holmes
“The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst
“My Magic Breath” by Alison Taylor and Nick Ortner

 

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