Talking to Your Daughter About Extreme Violence and Other Horrific Events
Parents have always needed to talk to their children about violence, but what’s different now is that the technology we use routinely has made all of us—including the youngest among us—virtual witnesses to some of the worst atrocities in the world. On our phones, tablets, and TVs, we get almost instantaneous, graphic accounts of events, along with sometimes live video or other graphic images from the events. A child seeing footage of a terror event isn’t necessarily a sign of lax parenting, but rather the result of inundating information and imagery in this always-on digital world.
“Kids and teens are understandably scared as well as worried when they see acts of extreme violence, especially when other young people are involved,” says Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist. “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. On the other side of the coin, littler kids don’t have the context to understand what’s going on, so they 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 about these types of horrific events—including violence at school—and how you work to keep them safe.”
Here are a few tips on how you can have these conversations in your own home:
1. Admit what she saw was real
Older girls of course 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 are smarter 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 about the recent violent events. Be present and really listen as she explains what she's going through, and know that it's more than OK to let her know 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. Do let her know that violence isn’t the answer, and that although she is likely angry about what happened, stereotyping any group of people based on isolated actions isn't just unhelpful—it's hurtful and wrong. 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 unexpected violence strikes, her 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
Incidents of extreme violence 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. In order 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 to be your best, most clear-thinking self.
6. Know you can reach out
Parenting, especially in trying times like these, can be hard. If you are worried that your child is not recovering healthfully from the trauma of recent violent events, talk to a counselor or psychologist at 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 stomach ache 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 is busy doing something else and isn't paying attention. Adults also need to be careful what they say with each other 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.