Talking To Your Children About Violence In The Media

As integrative pediatricians and your family’s medical home, Partners in Pediatrics is not only concerned with your child’s physical pediatric health care, but also with their emotional wellness. Mind, body and spirit are all equally important in a holistic approach to patient-centered pediatric care, and a child’s mind is young and impressionable.

With the recent tragic shooting in British Columbia, the saga of the Briana Keilar, and the horrible shootings in New Zealand, we thought we’d address how to discuss violent imagery with your kids. With the constant flow of media available to child and family alike, it’s harder than ever to monitor what your child is exposed to. Kids may accidentally walk in on you watching the news. They may see your iPad as you watch a video on the most recent shooting. They may overhear their friend discussing a tragedy on the playground. They may even sense your distress over a recent horrifying event (kids are very intuitive like that)!

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One way or another, your kids are inevitably going to be exposed to something terrible, and one of the tricky parts of parenting is navigating these difficult conversations. It’s very difficult to try to turn something  tragic into a positive learning experience for a child, and the conversation can feel uncomfortable. No one relishes discussing these things – especially not with innocent kids!

But your favorite Denver pediatricians are here to help you out! We’ve reflected on our decades of experience as primary care providers and parents and gathered up resources from reputable sources and put together some good guidelines for talking to your kids – however old they are. There’s no one way to broach difficult subjects, but these will make it easier and give you a good idea of where to start.

General Guidelines For All Ages

  • Start by asking what they already know. It is very helpful to understand whether you’re working with a blank slate or if they already have some preconceptions. Perhaps what they’ve heard is inaccurate, giving you a great opportunity to educate and clarify. But in the case of many heavily publicized events, children have already heard something from someone.
  • Keep the dialogue straightforward and direct. Obviously the degree of detail you go into will vary depending on your child and their age level, but direct, straightforward dialogue is generally best. Being unnecessarily vague is often unhelpful and may leave your child feeling more confused.
  • Avoid graphic and unnecessary details. Going into explicit details usually is not necessary or helpful. Describing violence in a detailed way can be disturbing to people of all ages – especially children. Be mindful of the kind of impact a disturbing image or description may have on an impressionable young mind. Try controlling (to the extent you can) what your child is exposed to. Perhaps preview any content (written, video or otherwise) before you share it with them. If you do want your older children to watch the news, for instance, you can try recording it in advance, previewing it and then allowing them to view it. But remember that you cannot control everything a child sees and hears, and they very well may come across a too-graphic depiction or description even if you do your best. But don’t panic if they do – these things happen to all of us (it probably did to you at some point as a kid!), and your child will be fine. Just treat the situation carefully and steadily.
  • Have your initial reaction in private. If something is extremely upsetting to you, try having your own reaction to it in private first if you can. This allows you to be calmer and steadier when you bring it up with your child, and will likely lessen their degree of upset. If you are panicked and stressed when discussing it, your emotions will likely affect your child’s, as well.
  • Use your own judgment. No one knows your child better than you do – trust your own judgment!  If it feels right to handle it a particular way, go for it. Parenting is an organic process, and you have to trust what your heart tells you about it. Have confidence in yourself as a parent! You’ve got this!
  • Remember to take care of yourself, too! Tragedies such as mass shootings don’t just upset children – they trouble and disturb all of us. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself, too – your child will be better off for it!

Talking To Very Young Children

  • Keep it simple and direct. One sentence may be all you need to cover the subject. Even very young children can be exposed to disturbing media, and a simple, direct sentence is often the best way to place it into context and help them understand without being scared.
  • Consider focusing on positives in the end. You don’t need to lie or sugarcoat the truth about a terrible tragedy, but you can perhaps try to soften the blow by focusing on the heroes of the story (perhaps first responders or civilians who helped save others).

Talking To Grade School Kids And Teens

  • Listen to their feelings. This is a great opportunity for your children to develop and become aware of their own personal feelings, opinions and values. Take the chance to ask them how they feel and bond with them by offering empathy, support and understanding.
  • Discuss solutions. Your children may not be socio-political experts, but they may have ideas for how to improve our society and prevent such tragedies from happening again. The opportunity can become a useful thought exercise that allows your child to engage with the world and understand the value of human life.

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Integrated Therapies For Stress Relief

If your child appears to be stressed or upset, there are also some great integrative therapies that can provide stress relief and invoke calmness.

  • Aromatherapy Essential oils, lavender, mandarin, and Roman chamomile will help decrease stress and promote relaxation. These oils may be added to bathwater or dabbed onto “pulse points” beneath the angle of the jaw or the temples.
  • Herbal Remedies Valerian root may help a stressed child sleep.
  • Bach Flower Remedies Rescue Remedy™ may be of use if your child is uncomfortable from stress or anxiety. You may use two drops every ten minutes to every few hours to calm restlessness as needed.
    • A lukewarm bath with 10 drops of Rescue Remedy™ added to the bathwater is often quite effective for stress relief in general
  • Massage Teach your child to massage their forehead with a fingertip, making firm circular motions, whenever the first signs of a headache appear.
  • Nutrition Multivitamins can be a great way to ensure your child is receiving proper nutrition every day.
    • Encourage hydration with water on a regular basis.
    • Limit intake of caffeine and refined sugars – these can send kids on a virtual “emotional roller coaster”.
    • Limit fast food consumption. In general most fast food is high in far, sodium, sugar and calories – and lower in nutrition.
    • Plan and encourage the consumption of regular healthy meals and snacks.

Closing Thoughts

Denver is sadly no stranger to community tragedies. The horrible Columbine High School shootings happened in Littleton. The infamous Aurora Theater Shooting happened in east Metro Denver. Hopefully your children will never have any close proximity to such terrible events, but in today’s hyper-connected world, a tragedy in a distant place like British Columbia or New Zealand may feel close at hand (beyond the basic empathy we all feel for our fellow humans).

As holistic pediatricians, we want to help you and your family in ways that go beyond strict western medicine (as safe and effective as it is) – we hope this is a helpful primer for getting you ready to talk to your kids about something very difficult. And we at Partners In Pediatrics are always here if you feel concerned, as well. If your child appears to be depressed or their general health seems to have been impacted by emotional stress, please don’t hesitate to come see us. (And remember that if you or your child feel very distressed, you can always call the good people at Colorado Crisis Services, too!)

Good luck, and stay healthy out there!


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