On a daily basis, a children are flooded with violence, whether it’s school bullying, parents fighting, suicide, or violence in the media. However, children, unlike adults, are not able to rationalize this violence, leading them to possibly experience confusion, fear, and anxiety. Although violence seems to have become commonplace in our society, it does not mean children have a better understanding and can appropriately processes the events they have been exposed to. In fact there are a number of consequences associated with witnessing violence, specifically that of emotional and social delays. So, the question becomes, how do you explain violence to your child so he or she is able to begin the healing process.
To Begin the Healing Process:
Allow your child to ask questions
Information can help your child mitigate any fear and anxiety. However, when answering questions, you want your answers to be developmentally appropriate. Younger children should be given very simple answers in which their fears and anxiety are validated and their safety is reassured. Older children, who can understand the impact of the violence, such as a school shooting, may need more information to feel safer. It may be necessary to include safety procedures, who is responsible for keeping them safe, or why they are safe at home or school. However, their feelings also need to be validated in order to reestablish a sense of safety.
Reassuring your child of his or her safety can help decrease any fears. For instance, if your child is struggling after witnessing or being a victim of school bullying, assure your child that you will handle the situation, possibly including the steps you will take to protect him or her. While you cannot always protect your child, you can also discuss that others are available for help. Explain the role of paramedics, police offices, firefighters, teachers, principals and other helping professionals to your young children so they feel safe, especially when you are not around.
Offer a nonverbal outlet
Sometimes talking isn’t the best way for your child to communicate is or her feelings and concerns. If your child has been exposed to violence, whether at home, school, or through the media, offer some form of art or play for your child to express fears and anxieties. Art and play allow your child to nonverbally share any thoughts or feelings that are arising in a way that feels safe. If your child appears to be struggling to process the violence he or she was exposed to, drawing will provide the opportunity to begin releasing his or her feelings feelings until he or she is able to talk with you.
Children will turn to you when they feel unsafe. To reestablish a sense of safety at home, school, or the neighborhood, have a developmentally appropriate conversation with your child. Make space in your day to speak to your children about the violence they witnesses and monitor their TV viewing to decrease their exposure to violence. Offering reassurance in regards to their safety, will not only help your child reestablish stability, it is imperative to mitigating fear and anxiety. If you have tried talking to your child or provided a nonverbal outlet, and your child is still struggling to understand the event, he or she may benefit from talking to a school counselor, social worker, or other mental health professional. Using these available resources will help your child feel supported, ultimately creating room for the healing to begin.
Lori Dougherty is a Marriage and Family Counselor at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO. As a child and family counselor, she helps families navigate the many difficulties that can arise. Through art and play and parent coaching, she helps families rebuild their bond so they can feel like a family again.