Children and Violence
A Guide for Parents
Events of public violence and death, such as terrorist attacks, the abduction or murder of loved ones, can leave children feeling confused, suspicious, disoriented and fearful. This is true for many children, even though each child responds differently and some responses may not be as obvious in some children as in others.
Some children may talk freely about what has happened, but others may find it difficult to identify or discuss their feelings. This may be even more difficult for children if adults around them appear uncomfortable, fearful, angry or out of touch with reality.
To the extent to which they are ready to talk, children need an opportunity to talk about both the facts and their feelings. They will be be concerned about both what happened and why it happened.
If a child is unable or unwilling to talk about what has happened and how it makes them feel, they may benefit from overhearing adults and older children discuss it calmly and carefully.
What Children Need
Following public events of violence or death, children need to be comforted and reassured. They need to know:
• That the world (their world, family, school or community) is not
spinning out of control.
• That people who care for them -- parents, grandparents, teachers --
have and will continue to take specific steps to protect them from
the danger of violence.
• That human violence is always a choice -- even when it is made by
individuals who do not think they have any other choices.
• That there are always other choices besides violence, and that most
people choose them most of the time -- in fact, the chances of being
a victim of violence under normal circumstances are very small.
• That God does not make such things happen and God does not use
violence to punish people; in fact, God is sad when human persons
suffer from the violence inflicted on them by others.
What Parents Can Do
Clarify the facts.
Ask your child to share what they know about the violent incident--what they have heard, seen or read. Use the information your child offers, and if necessary correct mistaken information, to create a factual summary of what happened. (You may want to ask a younger child to draw a picture of what happened and explain their picture outloud.)
This will give children an opportunity to "externalize" what they know, are thinking or are imagining. It will give parents an idea of how much children know and an opportunity to clarify facts and allay unnecessary fears in a non-emotional context. Talking about violence in a reasonably non-emotional and factual way is in itself reassuring; it says we do not have to be afraid of this information.
Conduct a word-association exercise in which you ask your child to suggest feeling words for how this violent incident makes people feel.
Present this first in the third-person ("how do people feel?"); this allows a child to express feelings which they otherwise might be afraid to recognize in themselves. When it is appropriate, move on to "how do you feel?"
• Ask your child to share why they think this event happened. Encourage as many possibilities as possible. Explain that no one knows for sure why someone commits a violent act in a particular situation, although many individuals commit violent acts because they are angry, feel afraid, want to get even, want to control other people, feel helpless, or because they have been taught that violence is an acceptable solution to their problems.
• This is a good time to help your child realize how easily persons can decide that violence is a good solution because they see violent solutions modeled in adult behavior, government action, in popular music, television shows, movies, videos and video games.
Discussing "why" helps children see that things do not happen for no reason; there are reasons people choose violence -- even if we don't know for sure what those reasons are, or don't think they are good reasons. This does not justify violence, but it helps explain it.
Identify Alternatives to Violence.
• While examining why this particular act of violence may have occurred, you can also help your child identify non-violence alternatives. What could or should the perpetrator done instead of choosing a violent act? Why would this have been a better choice? Who or what might have helped the person make a better, non-violent choice?
• Help your child identify situations which lead to conflict and potential violence in the family, school, among friends, in the neighborhood, in sports. Discuss or role-play conflict-resolution techniques which help people chose non-violent solutions for conflict.
This helps children understand that violence is not inevitable because there are legitimate alternatives to violent actions.
Identify What Is Being Done to Protect Your Child.
Review with your child what is being done in your family, in school, and in other environments to protect your child from the danger of violence. Explain specific rules and habits which help protect your child from day to day and week to week. Discuss any additional actions which could be taken to minimize the possibility of any family member being a victim of violence.
In order to feel safe, particularly after a violent event, children need to be reminded of the concrete things which are being done on a regular basis to protect them from violence. They need to know that parents and other caring adults are aware of potential dangers and have taken steps to protect them.
Connecting to Our Faith
Violence is a particular challenge to people of faith. Almost always it raises the question, "Where was God in all of this?" "Why did God allow this to happen?" or even "Why did God do this?"
What Children Need to Know.
Following a violent event, it is important to reassure children of what we believe and why faith makes sense.
According to their age, you can help your child know that:
• God loves and cares about every human person; God does not cause
violence and God does not punish people with violent actions.
• Because God's son died a violent death on the cross, God understands how we feel when we experience a violent action.
• God gave human beings freewill so that we could freely choose to do
good things and not be forced to do what God wants us to do.
• Bad things happen because, for one reason or another, some people
use their freewill to do bad things.
• However, God also gives us grace which empowers us to make good
• Jesus was born, lived, died and rose from the dead so that God's grace would be available to everyone.
• Because Jesus died and rose for us, we know that good is stronger than evil and that eventually God's grace will conquer all evil.
• The Church helps people receive and use God's grace to make good
choices and defeat evil.
• In spite of all the terrible things which happen in our world, Christians are people of hope because we believe that God's love and grace is stronger than anything else.
What People of Faith Can Do.
People of faith are not helpless in response to the bad choices which other people make, and the violence which happens because people make bad choices.
According to their age, you can help your child respond to violence by:
• Prayer. Prayer helps us live with hope, courage, patience and love in
spite of the bad things that happen to us and to others. It helps us
receive and use God's grace to do good things. Because we believe in
life after death and the Communion of Saints, prayer connects us with
those who have died; we can pray for them and they can pray for us.
• Acts of Kindness. When we are kind and respectful to other people
we show them God's love and grace; our example and God's grace
can help them to make good choices instead of bad ones.
• Acts of Charity. When we make good choices and do good things for
other people we help repair the damage which is done by our own and
other people's bad choices. Our acts of kindness and compassion can
help encourage and support the victims of violence.
• Acts of Reconciliation. When we admit that we have done something
wrong, when we say we are sorry, when we forgive others, when we act with mercy, when we choose to settle differences peacefully, we are using God's grace and showing people that violence is not the only way to deal with our problems.
• Participating in church and learning about our faith. When we pray
together with other people, learn more about God, and study about the
history of our faith we grow in our understanding of God's love and
grace; we strengthen our own ability to use God's love and grace to
make good choices; and we help others use God's love and grace to
make good choices which do not lead to violence.
Reflect on Scripture.
• Read the story of Jesus and his friend Lazarus in John 11:28ff.
This story shows Jesus' sorrow at the death of his friend and illustrates
God's compassion for people who suffer pain and loss.
• Recall the incident in which Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest's
servant in Matthew 26:51ff. This story illustrates Jesus' opposition to violence.
• Read Psalm 23. This is an ancient and reassuring statement of a fundamental Judeo-Christian belief in God's compassion.
Tips for Talking to Children After a Disaster (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services): http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/KEN01-0093/KEN01-0093.pdf
Talking to Children About Violence (National Association of School Psychologists): http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/talkingviolence.pdf
Talking to Children About Community Violence (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry): http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/resources_for_families/talking_to_children_about_community_violence
Fred Rogers Talks About Tragic Events in the News (The Fred Rogers Company):
Dr. Heidi Horsley's Six Coping Strategies for Children After a Trauma
Talking With Kids About Tough Issues--Violence (Children Now):
Talking to Kids About Fear and Violence (Mental Health America):
Talking to Children About Violence and Other Sensitive and Complex Issues (Teacher Vision): http://www.teachervision.fen.com/safety/resource/6812.html
…In Reponse to Tragedy (VibrantFaith@Home):
Dealing with Tragedy (Parent Further):
Family Pledge of Non-Violence (Institute for Peace and Justice):
Helping Kids (and Others) Make Sense of Tragedy (Our Sunday Visitor):
In a Crisis, Parents Must Be There (Parenting.org):
What to Do When Bad Things Happen (Parent Further):
Where the Hell Is God? (Thinking Faith):