How to Talk to Your Kids About Violence

Living in the city, my children are exposed to events I never encountered growing up in a North Jersey suburb. In the 1980s it was a different world, where mass shootings did not frequently happen and workplace sexual assault was not prominently reported. However with mass shootings and sexual harassment sadly ubiquitous in the news, parents are faced with the challenge of talking to their kids about these and other issues.

My husband and I typically don’t watch local or national news with the kids, if the news happens to be on and there is a sensitive topic I think would be too much for them to absorb, I will change the channel.

Today, when a tragedy like a school parent or student murder happens, young kids talk to each other about it at a school. Maybe they heard about the death from an older sibling or a neighbor. Mine have heard the terms “drug dealer” and “shot to death” from classmates. Children are more knowledgeable than we think.

An alumnus from my kids’ school was shot by a teenager in South Philly, my second grader told me what happened, and students discussed it in her class. I explained to my kids that the alumnus’ death was a tragedy. I told them, “Parents and teachers work to protect you and ensure you are safe.” We prayed for the two teen victims at our local church.   

How do you talk to your kids after stories like this break? I asked several local parents for their point of view.

Melanie Watson, a married parent of three living in Graduate Hospital, says she doesn’t talk to her kids about this stuff very much. “I don’t think they need to live with that kind of fear. We make sure they know about private areas and that only the doctor or parent should be looking,” says Watson. “They do emergency drills at school. I don’t think they need to know more. I don’t keep anything from them, exactly. I think they will ask questions if they want to know.”

Watson does not want to bombard them with sad and scary news: “Some of this news comes up in conversation at school and we deal with it as it comes. I’m grateful I can give them a safe and happy childhood. Why scare them too much?”

Liz Todd Scott, a married parent of two in the Graduate Hospital area, said she and her spouse generally subscribe to the theory that if their kids have enough understanding to ask about it, they owe them an age appropriate answer, and let their sons guide the conversation from there.

“As with most of our parenting decisions, we feel that it’s better to have these conversations early and disclose a little in increments each time it comes up, rather than waiting until they’re older and having to introduce topics that would be a lot to digest all at once,” says Scott. “We also try to focus on any positives we can find, as my wife always says after tragic events, “Look for the helpers.” Mr. Rodgers said it decades ago, and it’s still true, focusing on the helpers who get people through tragedy.”

Scott says it’s inspiring to know that there is goodness in the world and important for her kids to know that there will always be people available to help them through hard times.

Susan Hutton DeAngelus, a married mother of a 13-year-old living in Northern Liberties, tends to not seek out discussions on these topics unless her daughter approaches her as to not freak her out too soon about the world. As far as harassment, DeAngelus and her husband have discussed various situations she may encounter and how she must find the strength to put the focus back on whomever is trying to frighten her or manipulate her feelings. “I want her to be loud and point back to whomever and confront what is wrong with them so that they feel that type of behavior is unacceptable,” says DeAngelus.

DeAngelus has family members with mental illness so she’s sure they’ve discussed how badly the mentally ill are still treated and the irony of how that if the guns (in a mass shooting) may have been purchased legally, they weren’t used legally. “The media is so quick to label everyone, there is usually a bigger issue and it’s not so black and white,” she says. “Then there is the racial disparity. A black man is automatically a thug with a gun and a white man is mentally ill. We do talk about being safe, living our lives, saying I love you a lot and do as much good as we can.”

Tragedies unfold every day in an urban city like Philly. One uncertain aspect about living here is the age your children can walk to school, a store or a friend’s house alone. I’ve discussed this with other parents, and they have different answers. What is the appropriate age for youth to walk around their urban neighborhood by themselves? That’s a topic for another article.

Reiterate what your children’s doctor tells them at their yearly check-ups—only a doctor or parent can look at their private area. What went on in the US gymnastics world is tragic, Dr. Larry Nassar was found to have molested hundreds of girls, even Olympians, under the guise of medical treatment, he plead guilty to child sex abuse last year.

It seems threats exist in every corner, a very daunting prospect for parents. If you are a local parent, help your kids to navigate in knowing who to trust. Tell them to come to you if a teacher, coach or another authority figure acts inappropriately or if they have questions. Make sure you are the authority source, and not a classmate or outsider.  

Keep the lines of communication open with your children as they grow into tweens and teens. Know who their friends are and what they do together. I’ve always found discussing topics with other parents to be helpful, as we navigate this tumultuous world in the Trump era together.