When Violence on the News Shakes Her World
In our always-on digital world, technology has made all of us,
including the youngest among us, virtual witnesses to disturbing
scenes and violence that stream live or move through social feeds in
real time—such as during the recent attack within the U.S. Capitol,
where five people died and members of Congress were in grave
With kids spending more time than ever online right now, thanks to remote schooling, and with disturbing imagery dominating the news, sometimes they stumble upon these visuals before they—or you—know what happened. Because there is worry violence will continue over the coming weeks, extra screen time vigilance, particularly for younger kids, may be in order. Given our ongoing contact with phones, tablets, and TVs, we may again have to reckon with almost instantaneous, graphic accounts of events, including live video or images posted as they occur.
Kids and teens are understandably scared and upset when they see acts of extreme violence—from school shootings to terrorist attacks at concerts or gatherings—especially when other young people are involved. Older girls may try to bury their feelings of fear or sadness, but those feelings will only fester and become larger problems if they're not dealt with. Younger kids who don’t have the context to understand what’s going on will often fill in the blanks with the most frightening and worst-possible scenarios. That’s why it’s so important that parents don’t dismiss their kids' worries by saying, “Don’t worry about that,” or “Oh, that’s nothing.”
We need to have honest, direct conversations with all our children to acknowledge that scary things happen but also to assure them that you and others are working to keep them safe.
Here are a few tips for how you can have these conversations in your own home.
1. Admit what she saw was real
Older kids already understand that what happened was real, but little ones might not be sure. Resist the urge to tell your daughter the events she saw were just “pretend” or that it was a clip from a movie or TV show. Most kids catch on more than we may realize—they can see through even the most well-meaning fib—and, especially in an uncertain and threatening world, children need to be able to trust their parents and caregivers. When they feel that trust has been broken, they can feel even more anxious, distressed, and fearful.
2. Let her lead the conversation
Ask your daughter what she's thinking and how she's feeling. Be present and really listen as she explains what she's going through, and know that it's more than OK to say that you are also feeling confused, sad, and frustrated. Provide age-appropriate answers to her questions, taking care to not bombard your daughter with overwhelming information she hasn't asked for. Follow-up conversations are also key. Even though it can be an uncomfortable topic for you and her, check in with your girl at regular intervals to see how she's feeling.
3. Provide stability
When scary events occur, the whole world can seem unpredictable and a bit more frightening. Having a solid routine can help kids of any age feel a bit more anchored and safe. Keep your daughter's bedtimes and mealtimes as regular as possible—and if there must be a change in plans, take the time to explain what’s happening and why to help her feel informed, confident, and secure.
4. Don’t be alarmed by some regression
A distressed tween or even teen who isn’t usually afraid of the dark might suddenly want to keep the lights on as she dozes off. Similarly, an anxious younger child who hasn’t wet the bed in a year might have an accident overnight. While it can be frustrating to see this kind of “backslide” in your child, indulge her with extra hugs and comforting nightlights. Basically, go easy on her in the upcoming days. By being a source of comfort (and not judging her for her fear-based behaviors), she’ll likely go back to her previous sleep habits and abilities soon.
5. Practice self-care
Violent incidents are disturbing to all of us—not just young people—and if your daughter has been thinking "that could have been me" or "that could be my dad," chances are, you've had similar thoughts, too. To stay calm and present enough to provide support for your child as she grapples with her fears, you need to make sure you’re taking care of yourself and not making your own anxiety worse. Things like getting enough sleep, practicing deep-breathing exercises, and eating healthfully can help you be your best, most clear-thinking self.
6. Know you can reach out
Parenting, especially in trying times like these, can feel impossible. If you’re worried that your child is not recovering healthfully from the trauma of recent events, talk to a counselor or psychologist through her school, or contact other leaders in your community for help. Mental health is just like any other kind of health; if your daughter had an ongoing stomachache that wouldn’t go away, you’d get help for her. Getting her help for an emotional ache should be no different.
7. Watch what you watch (and what you say)
It’s not enough to monitor what your daughter watches during her own screen time. Limit your own viewing in front of your girl, even if you think she’s busy doing something else and isn't paying attention. Adults also need to be careful with what they say to one another in front of kids of all ages and refrain from angry comments made in the heat of the moment that might be misunderstood.
Most of all, take the time to give your daughter some extra love and support. Her feelings are probably complicated and confusing to her right now—but knowing she's got you on her team will help her through this.