Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers!

Dear Commons Community,

Jenny Tuten, a colleague at Hunter College in the Department of Curriculum & Teaching, sent this along to the Hunter LISTSERV.  It might be very helpful to those needing to speak to young people about the violence on Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.



Talking to Children About Violence:

Tips for Parents and Teachers

By The Center for School Mental Health

High profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse
and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their
friends or loved-ones are at risk. They will look to adults for
information and guidance on how to react. Parents and school
personnel can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of
normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears.

1. Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools
are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are
okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their
feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in
expressing these feelings appropriately.

2. Make time to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how
much information to provide. Be patient. Children and youth do
not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that
they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the
dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing
music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may
need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture
books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express
their feelings.

3. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
Early elementary school children need brief, simple information
that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and
homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give
simple examples of school safety like reminding children about
exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the
playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school

. Upper elementary and early middle school children will be
more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are
safe and what is being done at their school. They may need
assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of
school and community leaders to provide safe schools.

. Upper middle school and high school students will have strong
and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and
society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make
school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize
the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by
following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building
access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting
threats to the school safety made by students or community
members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to
school administrators, and accessing support for emotional

4. Review safety procedures. This should include procedures and
safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least
one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if
they feel threatened or at risk.

5. Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not
express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite,
and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or
discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with
reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk
for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past
traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or
other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater
risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental
health professional if you are at all concerned.

6. Limit television viewing of these events. Limit television
viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas.
Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or
confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be
mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each
other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their
exposure to vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might
be misunderstood.

7. Maintain a normal routine. Keeping to a regular schedule can
be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children
get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage
them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular
activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.

Suggested Points to Emphasize When Talking to Children

. Schools are safe places. School staff work with parents and
public safety providers (local police and fire departments,
emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep you safe.

. The school building is safe because . (cite specific school

. We all play a role in the school safety. Be observant and let an
adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel
uncomfortable, nervous or frightened.

. There is a difference between reporting, tattling or gossiping.
You can provide important information that may prevent harm
either directly or anonymously by telling a trusted adult what
you know or hear.

. Don’t dwell on the worst possibilities. Although there is no
absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is
important to understand the difference between the possibility of
something happening and the probability that it will affect our

. Senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand. Doing
things that you enjoy, sticking to your normal routine, and being
with friends and family help make us feel better and keep us
from worrying about the event.

. Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. They may be
unable to handle their anger, under the influence of drugs or
alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. Adults (parents,
teachers, police officers, doctors, faith leaders) work very hard
to get those people help and keep them from hurting others. It
is important for all of us to know how to get help if we feel really
upset or angry and to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

. Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you
know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading
risk factors for deadly violence.

. Violence is never a solution to personal problems. Students can
be part of the positive solution by participating in anti-violence
programs at school, learning conflict mediation skills, and
seeking help from an adult if they or a peer is struggling with
anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control.


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