Violence. It happens at home. In neighborhoods. Across states, countries and international borders.
News of shootings, stabbings, bombings, assault and abuse can be scary and create fear in anyone. But for kids and teens especially, who are learning about and witnessing violence while growing up, acts of violence can be particularly confusing or hard to make sense of, which is why it's all the more important to talk to young people about this sensitive subject.
But where to begin?
Kimberly Blair is a youth education and prevention specialist for the Berkshire District Attorney's Office in Pittsfield, Mass. She and her colleagues in the office's education and outreach department spend most of their days talking to youth about complex subjects and issues they may encounter, such as bullying and cyberbullying, dating violence and building healthy relationships, substance use and abuse, risky behaviors, and more.
"We learn a lot about where kids are at from the different programs we do, and one of the things we found is that kids like to role play. For them, it's more of a behavioral rehearsal, this is situation you're in and what would you do," Blair said.
"Being able to talk to kids about what could be happening, what they hear is happening, and what they would do if something happens are helpful things to discuss," she added.
Conversations about violence and other social issues can and should happen at an early age, to demonstrate the importance for young people in having a trusted adult in their lives that they can talk to about sensitive subjects.
"They need to know how to be able to access help when they need it. Talking also helps them process their decisions and build life skills and also positive behaviors," Blair noted.
Some guidance counselors and school psychologists in the region noted that there are many online resources for parents and educators about how to facilitate a constructive and healthy conversation with kids about violence.
Courtney Bopp, a school psychologist at Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Woodford, Vt., said the National Association of School Psychologists publishes tip sheets on how to have age-appropriate conversations with young people on a variety of subjects, from school shootings and violence to the swine flu.
The NASP this year published one such document, "Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers," offering the following overview on the subject: "High profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved-ones are at risk. They will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Parents and school personnel can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears."
The tip sheet reminds parents and educators that it's important to validate a young person's feelings, and to explain that "all feelings are OK when a tragedy occurs," but that it's also important to put those feelings and the violent incidents being contemplated into perspective.
The sheet then offers seven guidance points:
1. Reassure children that they are safe.
2. Make time to talk.
3. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
4. Review safety procedures.
5. Observe children's emotional state.
6. Limit television viewing of these events.
7. Maintain a normal routine.
Of course, there will be nuances in how you approach a child or teen, depending on the situation, their ability to communicate, their proximity to the issue, environmental factors, etc. It's important to acknowledge and take into consideration these factors before starting a conversation. Some youths may not or cannot talk, especially young children, so doing some creative or expressive play or offering them another outlet, like drawing their feelings, may be helpful.
Finally, it's important to demonstrate for children and teens that there are alternatives to violence and acting out in a violent manner when something troubling is happening.
The NASP also advocates for education in practicing non-violence, and in its tip sheet writes, "Students can be part of the positive solution by participating in anti-violence programs at school, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from an adult if they or a peer is struggling with anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control."
"So much of what we do is prevention," said Blair, noting that building empathy for others early on can have a lifelong effect on children's thoughts and behaviors when they become adults.
"Teaching [youths] general skills such as good communication, good decision making, and what goes into those, in a positive way can transfer to situations in their lives," she said.
• Visit nasponline.org and search, "talking about violence"
• PBS Parents' webpage offers tips for talking with kids about news: pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news
• National Association for the Education of Young Children offer's a webpage, "Coping With Violence": naeyc.org/content/coping-violence
• The National Child Traumatic Stress Network's Help Kids Cope campaign: nctsn.org/content/help-kids-cope