Talking with Children about Violence

By Pam Henderson

Last Sunday, I enjoyed a typical Sunday with my family at church. As a special treat, my daughter and I went to lunch. We must have talked for an hour about anything and everything. Anyone with a teenager knows how few and far between those moments are. On the way home, we listened to Christmas music. She chose the old songs – Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como, Glenn Miller.

Once home, we settled into our lounging clothes and I spent the rest of the day until midnight cleaning out kitchen cabinets. I went to sleep that night feeling satisfaction from all that I had accomplished.

Not once during the entire day did I turn on the television or the radio. I was blissfully ignorant of what had happened earlier in the morning.

So, to say I was dumbfounded on Monday morning to learn of the shooting that took place in Texas is an understatement. At the same moment that I was taking in my church service, parishioners 1,100 miles away, were ripped away from theirs.

As I scanned news sources on Monday and on the days that followed, I was overwhelmed by so many glaring headlines: Texas church massacre, dead teenage girls in the Mediterranean and the continuing political saga in Washington. I saw a photo of the elephant calf set afire, a nuclear cloud and pageant contestants dressed in steak bikinis to protest sexual harassment.

After reading these stories, seeing these photos, I just felt a tidal wave of emotion. You imagine for a moment if that were you or your loved ones had been in the church…

Like most adults from my generation, I have lived through decades of seeing and hearing horrific stories in the news, and sadly some first-hand. My earliest sad memory is of the Vietnam War. While I was too young to understand the concept of war, I was old enough to know that the soldier on my sister’s POW bracelet never returned. There was an assassination attempt on President Reagan. Years later, in my first month of college, there were two on-campus suicides and the Tylenol tampering that made national headlines. Then, Challenger and Columbia gave us thrills that were both soon deflated by despair. Illness, heartbreak and death have all visited more than once.

But, even more often, the man-made violence shakes me, and likely everyone else, again and again. The fear and sadness resonate when we hear the words Shanksville, Charlotte, Orlando, Las Vegas and Sandy Hook. So many new towns and cities have shown up on the map where terror and violence have taken place, that now two generations of Americans are too young to remember names like Oklahoma City, Columbine and Jonesboro that headlined the news in the decade before 9/11.

My uncle lived through the Russellville, Arkansas shootings in 1987. “A crazy man is shooting people. Get down!” is what nurses at the doctor’s office yelled to them. A friend from Pennsylvania experienced first-hand his town’s grief in 2006 when young girls in his Amish community of Lancaster were gunned down inside their one room schoolhouse. The events of last Sunday are a grim reminder that these tragedies, wherever they take place, are really not far from us. We’re connected to them through family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and by the simple fact that we all live on this planet together.

In my children’s lifetime, terror and vicious, senseless attacks seem to be more common than when I was young. I don’t remember the world always being like this. Is it more common today, or does 24/7 accessibility to news make us more aware of its frequency?

“There’s too much violence” I hear from adults who don’t tune into the news any more. Closing are eyes to the violence doesn’t make it go away. If we, as adults, can feel overloaded by news, imagine how our children feel? Their resiliency and life experiences are still being developed. They don’t have the maturity or coping skills to manage their feelings. In addition to feeling their own stress, they are taking in the stress that they see from parents who might be having financial troubles, struggling with an illness or living in a loveless marriage. They see the images on their televisions, phones and tablets of the tragedies occurring around the world. As much as we may try to shelter children from our grown-up problems, they still can sense when things aren’t right.

And, when you become aware of violence in Europe, Africa, the Middle East or South America, there is that feeling that it can happen here. Sadly, we can’t give our children 100% assurance that it won’t. However, we can say and do things to help our children cope. Mary Pulido, Ph.D. Executive Director for the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children offers these tips:

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ website offers tips on how to recognize stress in your child. Check out: As always, if you are worried about your child’s well-being, contact your child’s physician.

 Sometimes, nothing lifts your spirits as much as when you help someone else or do something kind for another person. Such an act reminds the giver and the receiver that there are many more good people in the world than there are bad. That’s an important reminder even for adults.