Here we are again, with another weekend news cycle focused on stories of violence and questions about domestic terrorism. Yesterday, a friend cried, “Are we safe anywhere anymore?” Another said, “How am I supposed to raise children in a world like this?” And several others asked, “What am I supposed to tell my kids?” I’m still pondering the first two questions, which are very hard and hurt the heart, but I have some thoughts about the third.
Here are five principles I use to guide conversations with kids about violence:
- Limit exposure to media stories about acts of violence. The 24 hour TV news cycle and constant access to information online means that we’re bombarded with news of tragedy here and around the world. This can be overwhelming even for adults. “I feel like I’m on edge all the time,” a parent said recently. “I want to be informed but I get anxious every time I turn on the news. Even worse, I find that I’m scared of everyday situations, like going to a movie theater or attending a concert, because of shootings that have happened.”
Children and teens can have the same reaction. The best way to protect them is by not letting them see news stories about violence. Kids in early elementary school and younger should have very limited access to media coverage. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. Restaurants, airports and even stores often have TVs showing 24 hour news shows like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Still, any steps that are taken to reduce exposure are helpful for preventing overload. For tweens and teens, explain the symptoms of media overload and ask them to help you set times when access to phones, TV and computers isn’t allowed. This “unplugged” time is crucial for our brains to process information and our souls to regain balance in uncertain times.
2. Find out what your child or teen knows. Even when families take steps to reduce media exposure, kids hear about tragic events from other sources. If you’re concerned about a particular event, start by asking your child what they know about it. For example, “There was some hard news about a shooting in Chicago, did you hear about that?”
Once you know how much they’ve heard, you can decide how much to share yourself. Trust yourself. You know your child, their maturity level and how much they need to know. Leave plenty of room for them to talk at their own pace. They may not have much to say at first but you’re laying the foundation for them to be able to talk to you in the future.
3. Put news stories in perspective. As hard as it is to believe sometimes, violence is not the norm. Remind your child (and yourself) that acts of hatred and violence are the exception. That’s why they make the news. As tragic and awful as it is when even one act of violence occurs, we can remember that most people are kind and the world is mostly safe.
4. Talk about the ways you keep your family safe. Security is a primary need for both children and adults. However, children are dependent on the adults around them to provide that safety. If kids are becoming fearful of violence, help them by explaining the steps that you take to keep them safe and telling them where they can turn to for help if they need it. Show them how you lock the doors each night, how you only take them to safe places and that you only leave them with people you trust. Let them know who the safe people in their lives are. “If you ever feel scared at school, you can tell your teacher.” For older kids and teens, this may also mean identifying a safe neighbor they can turn to. “If you need help and I’m not home, you can always go to the neighbor’s house or call grandma.”
5. Provide a spiritual anchor. When I was growing up, my family said the Prayer for Protection and the Lord’s Prayer each night before bed. This practice has stuck with me. Even as an adult, the Prayer for Protection is the prayer I turn to when I’m anxious. Several friends of mine rely on Psalm 23 or another inspiring word of scripture. This is the gift of tradition: it gives us the words to say when we’re too scared or lonely to say them ourselves. The key is to build in a spiritual practice before it’s needed. In a moment of fear, we need something comforting and familiar to turn to. The good news is that this is as simple as adding a prayer, reading or spiritual song to your bedtime routine. As you repeat this throughout the years, your children will grow up with a practice that can guide them through life’s hard times.
Prayer for Protection:
The light of God surrounds us;
The love of God enfolds us;
The power of God protects us;
The presence of God watches over us;
Wherever we are, God is!