Recently a violent summer storm swept through the Atlanta-area community where we live near our grandchildren. My seven-year-old grandson Owen, who only a few weeks before had finally become comfortable with July 4th holiday fireworks, rushed from his bed to his parents’ room.

Earlier in the evening, there had been reports of expected high winds or even tornadoes. As the thunder pealed and the lightning flashed, the possibility of a tornado seemed paramount in Owen’s mind. For the next 15 minutes or so, he besieged his Dad with questions. “What’s a tornado again, Daddy?” “What do we do if a tornado does come? Do we hide in the basement?”

Finally, after receiving patiently delivered answers and a series of hugs, Owen fell asleep again.

It’s Nature’s Way

Now as a grandfather, I obviously don’t like my grandson being upset and frightened. However, he must come to realize that the unleashed power of nature can be terrifying. But even when nature is at its most destructive, there are scientific forces in play that can be explained.

But It’s a Different Story with People

The same isn’t always true for man-made malevolence. If most of us are disturbed by the images of violence and slaughter that are bombarding us, imagine how the youngest among us feel. We want to talk to the young ones we love, but we struggle. We want to say the assuring things, the right things, the very best things.

Discussing Violence as a Teacher

I was a teacher for 20 years in an American inner-city urban school. It was in a community where gunfire was a weekly occurrence. Youngsters sometimes slept in bathtubs so as not to be hit by an errant spray of bullets. I often encountered blank stares and vacant eyes in my high school English class. These were the masks my students would adopt to block their fears after the latest outbreak of violence.

But after a few moments in class the queries would come, slowly at first, but then more rapidly. The questions came after Columbine. The questions came after 9/11. And, all too often, the questions came after a shooting in one of the city’s neighborhoods.

How to Talk to Kids About Violence

Over the years, through research, guidance from experts, and trial-and-error, I came up with a 10-step process for handling the tricky question of talking about violence. It worked for me and it might work for you. The advice equally applies to speaking with grandchildren, friends or family.

  • Tell the students briefly what happened. It’s virtually certain that they will have heard something about the incident and those versions probably contain inaccuracies.
  • Only give them the basics delivered in an age-appropriate, reassuring way. For example: “I’m sure you heard last night a gunman shot at police officers and some policemen were killed. I think we need to talk about that.”
  • Let the students ask questions. Let them direct the conversation. That’s one way they will tell you how much they know and how much they want to know.
  • Sometimes, it’s best to answer a question with another question. For example: “Why would somebody do that?” can be followed with “I’m not really sure. Why do you think someone would do that?”
  • Give the students a chance to talk and vent their feelings. However, steer them back on topic if they get sidetracked, say improper comments, or demonstrate inappropriate behaviors.
  • Be supportive. Some people may initially be hysterical and dramatic, but eventually they will take their emotional cues from you.
  • At the end of the discussion give a simple summation like this: “What happened was a terrible thing. But we’re here. And we’re OK. And we’re going to go on.”
  • If warranted, you can add something like this: “It’s clear that you were really affected by what happened. Let’s see in the days to come if we can figure out a way we can help the people in _________.”
  • Make sure to return to normal procedures as soon as possible, but continue to monitor your students to know if you need to step back in or recommend professional help.
  • And finally mention Mr. Rogers.

Always Look for the Helpers

The best advice I ever discovered for dealing with disturbing events and young people came from that secular saint of children everywhere, Fred Rogers.

He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in the world.”

You’re right as usual, Mr. Rogers.

Even in the most violent days in our neighborhoods, our countries, and our regions, the helpers will be there. And they will always outnumber the harmers. We just have to remember to set aside our own fears and look.

Some people believe you shouldn’t talk to youngsters about violence in the world. Others, such as myself, believe you should address the subject in an age-appropriate manner. Which way to you think is the best approach? Do you have any personal stories to help grandparents or parents struggling with this issue? Please join the conversation below.

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