Supporting Children's Mental Health After Violence
When a violent act occurs and people are hurt or killed, the impact affects communities and beyond. Children and teens can learn about these events through word of mouth, television, the internet and social media. Sometimes, kids witness the violence or are harmed. They may need adults’ help and support navigating their fear, anger, confusion and other emotions.
Carol Vidal, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry. Jennifer Katzenstein is the director of psychology, neuropsychology and social work at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health. Together, they offer suggestions for parents and caregivers that can help everyone process violent occurrences, work through questions together and support kids’ well-being.
How do I talk to my children about violent events in the news?
“As much as we would like to shield our kids from the horror of these events, it is better to talk them out, since they are likely to hear about them from media or from one other,” Vidal says.
She notes that children and teens may get distorted ideas from unreliable sources, and parents and caregivers can help provide clarity and comfort.
“Parents and caregivers should make it clear that there is nothing too terrible to talk through together,” she advises. “This is essential for keeping communication open.”
Katzenstein recommends that parents also consider the child’s age and developmental level when deciding how much to discuss. “Until children are about 7 years old, it’s hard for them to understand the difference between a story and something that really happened,” Katzenstein says. “Think of the child and what they can handle. Providing too much detail can confuse or frighten them.”
If a very young child does not mention a violent event being reported in the news, they may not be aware of it. Parents can wait to see if the child brings up the topic, and then answer their questions briefly, one at a time, as the child asks them.
How can I provide time and space for kids’ questions and feelings about violent incidents?
Katzenstein emphasizes the importance of being fully present. “Adults should put phones down and listen to the child very carefully,” she says.
“To find out what a child already knows or has heard about a violent occurrence,” Katzenstein says, “start with questions such as, ‘How was school today? What did you talk about?’ to open a conversation and give children an opportunity to voice what is on their minds. If a child brings up a disturbing news item, parents can ask the child directly what they have already heard or read.”
Likewise, Vidal recommends letting the child or teen direct how much about the violent event they need or want to talk about. Answering their questions honestly, without a lot of elaboration, is best.
She also advises parents not to feel like they need to fill in the silences that might occur in these conversations while the child is thinking, even if that means some awkward pauses here and there. “Adults can let quiet pauses happen, since these moments can give kids the chance to find the words to ask questions and express what is bothering them the most,” Vidal says.
How can I comfort my child when I am upset about the violent occurrence?
Parents have their own anxiety and stress, and it takes effort not to overwhelm kids with what we feel after a frightening event. Find out about safety precautions at the child’s school. Make sure there are emergency plans in place and that your child can repeat them.
Katzenstein suggests that when discussing a violent episode with a child, try not to respond with big emotions if you can help it. When you are calm, it helps the child feel more secure.
“Of course, it’s OK to let kids see that parents are scared and upset, too,” she says. “But as much as we adults want to fix problems and tell children not to worry, it’s better to wait and let children bring us their concerns, and then explore answers together.”
Vidal agrees: “Parents need to be calm and regulate their emotions. As adults, we can take steps ― small ones ― to show children and teens that we are OK and working to keep them safe. Taking action can help us feel more empowered, too.”
For example, adults can participate in neighborhood safety programs and encourage older children and teens to get involved in school and community safety and prevention efforts.
Should I limit my kids’ exposure to media when a violent incident is in the news?
Yes — changing the channel, closing the laptop or giving the phones a break is essential, say both experts.
“Children, particularly younger ones, do not have the experience or perspective of older people, and their minds can become overwhelmed by repeated violent images and intense emotion,” Vidal says. “The repetition of video footage in media can confuse a child and make them think the incident is happening again and again.”
Katzenstein agrees, and notes that too much media consumption ― of any kind ― can be unhealthy. “We know that consuming media shapes our moods.”
“Parents can use these occurrences as a time to talk to kids about media literacy,” she says. “Older children and teens can learn concepts such as bias and context. Adults can help kids understand the difference between actual news and opinion, and explore media coverage together, discussing different viewpoints, as a family.”
How can I tell if my child needs help?
Katzenstein says for children age 7 and younger who have heard about or witnessed a violent event, parents and caregivers should keep an eye out for behavioral clues such as appetite changes or disrupted patterns of sleep or toileting.
According to Vidal, additional signs that your child or teen is struggling include:
- Being anxious about going to school or leaving the house
- Becoming startled more easily― jumpiness
- Unusual irritability or tension, seeming more on edge
What if my child or teen is afraid to go to school or be in public places?
Vidal says it’s OK to acknowledge that a particular event was awful while reassuring the child that violent acts are largely isolated and that most schools and public places are safe. She adds that she does not recommend that parents take the kids out of school.
“Remind them that protective measures are in place to keep everyone safe,” says Katzenstein. “If children are very anxious, help them by showing them deep breath exercises and other relaxation techniques.”
What can adults say to children about why violence happens in communities?
“For the hard questions,” Katzenstein says, “think about your family values and your shared beliefs. It’s fine to say, ‘I don't know’ and admit that violence is a hard problem to solve. Talk about the many factors associated with violence in the community.
“If your children are older, a traumatic event in the news can provide an opportunity to make a commitment as a family to learn and work together in some public context to effect positive change, such as volunteering.”
Vidal stresses that it’s important for kids and adults to know they are not entirely powerless and that each person can make a difference.
“Having honest conversations is essential,” she says. “We can take care of ourselves and one another while working for more justice and compassion in our classrooms and communities and making positive changes where we can.”