First and foremost, you should explain that violence is never the answer in any situation.
- Start these conversations early. Young children might not understand the word “violence,” but you can teach them about how things like hitting and kicking aren’t the ways to show anger. Encourage them to talk about what is making them upset and explain why it’s important for them to use words that don’t hurt people either.
- Continue the conversation. For older kids and teens, ask about their thoughts on violence. Explain that you do not approve of violence as a way to solve problems but try not to lecture. Instead, have a dialogue and take advantage of teachable moments like news events.
“Communicate to your children that there are always other options than violence,” says Dr. Glover. “There are many ways we can respectfully disagree, work to find compromise and move forward together.” For younger kids, try describing how you’ve settled an argument or another conflict without violence.
School shootings and mass shootings
When talking about school shootings, clinical child and adolescent psychologist Jessica Hawks, PhD, says to keep the following in mind:
Talk openly with your child. Listen to your child’s concerns. Encourage them to ask questions and share how they are feeling. Provide direct, honest and developmentally appropriate answers. During conversations with your child, listen for any misunderstandings that may increase their fears and anxiety.
Highlight ideas of security and safety. While school shootings remind all of us that we are never completely safe, it is important to highlight what your child’s school and community are doing to keep students safe. Limit media exposure about the shooting and ask questions about what they’re hearing and seeing from friends. For older children, support and encourage advocacy work to help them feel empowered and overcome their fears.
Keep routines and expectations as normal as possible. Your child will feel more secure when there is consistency and predictability in their lives, including attending school and participating in other daily activities.
Acts of terrorism
Be honest about what happened and open to questions. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers. Often, kids are scared about their safety. Listen to their fears and do your best to reassure them that they are safe. Depending on the event, you may be able to talk about certain safety measures and community providers, like firefighters and police officers, that help ensure safety.
This is one of the most common types of violence kids will witness or experience. As a parent, you should assume that your child knows more than you think they know. Start by providing straightforward messages of support or by asking what your child saw, feels or thinks about what happened. Children will often stop asking questions when they have enough information to feel safe and secure. Refrain from giving them more information than they need or want.
Offer messages like:
- The violence was not and is not OK.
- It is not your fault, and it is not your job or responsibility to prevent or change the situation.
- I’m sorry you had to see (or hear) that.
- I care about you. You are important.
This information is from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s (NCTSN) resources document called Questions and Answers about Child Physical Abuse. Visit the NCTSN website to learn more about physical abuse and domestic violence.
Helping children learn about their bodies and sex isn’t one conversation. It should be a series of conversations starting from an early age. Begin by helping your child build empathy, which is the crucial foundation for all respectful relationships. When you’re ready to teach your child about their body, keep the following in mind:
- For young children, teach that no one is allowed to touch them without their permission — even family members and relatives. It’s also important for kids to know the names of body parts and which specific parts are especially important for others not to touch without permission. If your child has questions about sex, answer them honestly in terms they can understand.
- For adolescents and teenagers, be open to answering their questions, be honest, and be clear about your values. Help your child learn accurate information about sexual health.
- Teach your child about the difference between surprises and secrets. Surprises are kept quiet for a short time and are shared with others to make them happy. Secrets are kept for a long time and are meant to hide something that would make someone else feel mad or sad. Help your child understand that nobody should tell them to keep a secret from you.
Even from a young age, you should make consent a recurring topic in your conversations: who can give it, when they can give it and how to know when you have it. It’s crucial for kids to understand that anyone can withdraw consent at any time. If someone withdraws consent and the other person doesn’t stop, that is sexual violence and it’s wrong. Learn more about discussing romantic relationships and consent with kids.