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Special Episode: How Do You Talk To Kids About Violence In The News?

Chris O'Meara
Associated Press
Josh Mercer, left, and his husband, James Mercer, place a poster at a makeshift memorial Monday, June 13, 2016, for two of their friends who were victims of a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub.

This is a special episode just for parents. It’s about how to address violence and tragedy in the news with your children. This podcast comes the day after and in response to the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida.

Sadly, it’s relevant all too frequently, when bad news and tragedy strikes and the news seems unavoidable, every time you turn on the TV or the radio wonder how to explain violence and disaster to your kids?

Should you shelter them from the horrors you’re consuming on the news? Do you sit them down and explain things? Wait for them to ask you questions? What do you do if you want to keep the news from them but worry they may hear things that trouble them at school or on the playground?

For answers, we turned to Dr. Robin Gurwitch. She’s a child psychologist at the Duke University Medical Center and she serves on the National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters. She’s been researching and providing direct services and training on children and trauma since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

“It would be wonderful if we could wrap our arms around children and prevent bad things from ever happening to them, but that unfortunately is not how the world works,” Gurwitch, adding that children from birth to three can be protected from images and discussions. “But as they reach preschool age and upward just turning on a television set and seeing images right away, listening to adult conversations, as much as we would like to shelter them, it’s more pretending than reality.” She says older children can read headlines in a grocery store or see images on newspapers and magazines and for middle and high school children can see social media.

"Starting the conversation is the hardest thing parents ever do. But not talking about it can actually make things worse because I start filling in the gaps as the child." - Dr. Robin Gurwitch

“It’s also important though for parents to say, you know, there’s an off button. There are things I can do to limit exposure,” Gurwitch said. Limiting exposure is a good idea for young children. “As they get older and they’re going to hear a little, make sure that’s limited as much as possible. As children begin to watch it, as they reach the age they can seek it out themselves or their having conversations, or they are watching it a little bit more, please sit down with them. Don’t have them watch it alone. Then turn it off and talk about what do you think about what you just heard or what you just saw? And let’s talk about that.”

If you are aware they know about the event, you can ask them direct questions, let you child know you are willing to talk about it. If you know they are likely to hear about it, it’s ok to sit down and start a conversation about it. “You might even ask what have you heard about what happened in Orlando? Because that way you hear from them what do they understand and then any misperceptions or misinformation can be laid to rest or corrected,” she said. Encouraging questions is important.

“Starting the conversation is the hardest thing parents ever do. But not talking about it can actually make things worse because I start filling in the gaps as the child. I may hear a little bit. I may not understand it, so I’m going to fill it in. And what I fill in the gaps with is much worse than what the reality is.”

The appropriate amount of information changes with their age, though no age group needs the grisly details. Gurwitch says it’s also an opportunity to talk to children about your values.

“For families that have children who are part of the LGBTQ community or if caregivers are part of that community it becomes even more important to have this information. This is a window of opportunity in the darkest hours to share your values and your beliefs about how do we treat each other? What kind of message do you want your children to have about tolerance and acceptance and support for people who may be different than who you or they are?”

“We also have to think about Muslim families in our communities. What message do we want to send again, in this window to make sure they are taken care of? For parents who are Muslim how do we have this conversation with our children to make sure they know that I’m available if anybody bullies you, if anybody makes you feel uncomfortable, please talk to me as your parent, as your caregiver, as your family, we are going to do this together.”

“The best most important thing we can do is to be a little patient, to give that bit of extra support right now, a little bit of that extra attention, and a little bit of extra help and love,” Gurwitch said.

Listen to the full episode for more advice from Robin Gurwitch.

Read the full transcript

Here are additional links from our guest:

American Psychological Association

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

The Family Acceptance Project


Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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