Talking to Your Kids about Violence - MetroFamily Magazine
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Talking to Your Kids about Violence

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Having trouble talking to your kids about recent violence in our community? Here’s help!

Those of us who lived in Oklahoma City in 1995 when the Murrah Building was bombed know the sadness, fear and other powerful emotions that affect all who are close to the tragic loss of life and injuries due to the acts of others. The Oklahoma City bombing (and the many mass killings since that time) are hard for adults to handle but what about children? How are they internalizing the information they’ve heard about these tragedies? How can we help them navigate their emotions?

As we thought about how we could help our parent readers with this task, we turned to Dr. Robin Gurwitch who, at the time of the 1995 Murrah Building bombing, was working with the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center (OUHSC). Starting the day of the bombing, she began providing direct service, training and conducting research on children who either were directly or indirectly affected by the tragedy. She has since devoted much of her professional life to understanding how disasters affect children and youth and how parents and other caregivers can help them through the experience.

Here are some important tips from Dr. Gurwitch to help you guide your children through the emotions and reactions after being impacted by violence in our communities.


The first thing to do is find a quiet time to listen carefully to what your child understands about the incident. It would be hard to imagine in this age of ubiquitous media that your child wouldn’t have some understanding of what happened, regardless of their age. Let their voices be heard and answer any questions they have as honestly as you can and at a language level they can understand. Keep in mind when the “why did this happen?” question comes up, that the most honest answer might be “I don’t know.” This is a time to make them feel comfortable bringing difficult questions to you, the parent, and this experience will open the door for similar difficult discussions that may come up in the future, such as times when your child is being bullied or dealing with other serious issues that come up.

“Communication is so important,” advises Dr. Gurwitch. “Don’t hesitate to talk about it and realize that you, as the parent, should start the conversation.”

Dr. Gurwitch says that how much you say to them depends on their age. Answer their questions honestly, helping them to understand terms such as tolerance, respect, etc.

“The discussion time is your opportunity as a parent to share your beliefs and values,” Gurwitch adds. “For example, you can help them understand that people may have differences but that doesn’t mean that you should turn to violence to change someone’s opinions and beliefs.”


For very young children (under 4 or 5), make efforts to turn off the television and monitor adult conversations as they will “fill in the gaps” of what they do not understand. With children ages 5 and older, consider how much they are watching. Be sure to limit this, particularly in the elementary school age range. Whatever the age, take time to talk to them about what they have seen or heard, even watching this together with your tween or teen. Information comes from many sources; talking to your children now and in the weeks ahead is important.


Gurwitch recalled the quote by Fred Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

Gurwitch said that as you talk with children and youth, you should emphasize the stories of good that happened after the shootings, of people helping the victims find medical care, the lines around the block of people giving blood in response to the victims’ needs, the heroes and community leaders such as policeman, paramedics, doctors and hospital workers that immediately took action to help the victims. Emphasizing the helpers and the good in people can put the disaster in perspective. Yes, bad things happen and we can’t always make sense of it, but there are far more good people in the world and good things happening.


“This is also a time to talk about steps we can take to be prepared should something happen,” Gurwitch adds. For instance, have a plan for where to meet as a family if there is a disaster such as a tornado or fire. Know where the exit doors are at the movie theater, etc. Having concrete plans and practicing those plans help everyone in the family have a sense of control over what they can do to help each other and themselves during times of difficulty.


Be aware that there may be circumstances when your child may need more help working through the tragedy than you can provide. Signs of distress in children can show as sleep problems, trouble focusing, withdrawal from activities your child previously enjoyed, not wanting to play with friends, being worried to the point where it interrupts their normal day-to-day routine, etc. If you observe these things longer than you would expect, you should reach out to your pediatrician, mental health professional or group, the faith community or others for advice. Sometimes all it takes is one phone call to help you know what to do next.

Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a child psychologist at Duke University Medical Center, has been involved in understanding the impact of terrorism and disasters on children since the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, providing direct service, training and conducting research. She is a member of the APA (American Psychological Association) Disaster Resource Network, American Red Cross and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Dr. Gurwitch was recently appointed to the HHS National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters.

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