Answering Your Child’s Challenging Questions About Violence
Children are bombarded with images of gun violence, war, and terror on TV and on social media. They are understandably worried and concerned. And when children are stressed, they ask questions. How can you best address questions and relieve concerns?
As a parent, your capacity to respond helps your child maintain an open, honest way of interacting with the world.
Number 1: Legitimize all questions.
Questions can be difficult to ask but even more difficult to answer. There are few black and whites. It’s most important that you let your child know that you are a safe, understanding listener. This begins by letting your child know that any question is valid and worthwhile. No matter how unusual, surprising, or terrifying the question, your child needs to know that you will not reject it. All that’s required for a supportive reaction is as simple a response as possible.
Try Saying This:
“That’s a very good question. You are asking me…” (repeat the question as you heard it).
“Lots of kids your age have the same question….”
“You’re asking a very interesting question. Let me think about it…”
“You’re not alone in wondering about this…”
“I know this must have been tough for you to talk to me about. I’m glad you did.”
Number 2: Find out what they know.
Frequently, a child asks a question to seek reassurance. S/he may have heard bits and pieces about a topic, and is looking to you to fill in the blanks. So, if you can find out in a nonjudgmental way what is already known about the topic, then you can ascertain how much information to provide to satisfy the need. Sometimes kids have inaccurate ideas that can also be the source of unrealistic fears. When you can, try to give short-and-sweet information to your child by answering on your child’s level. Obviously, a four-year-old is going to require very different information than a twelve-year-old.
My immediate impulse when a child (or anyone, for that matter) asks me a question is to offer an answer. Even as a psychotherapist, group leader, and mother, I have trouble pausing long enough to figure out how to come up with a suitable response. I find that when I take even a few seconds to think a question through, my gut will usually tell me how to proceed. The words, “Hmmm, let me think about that for a second” can be extraordinarily helpful in giving me the space I need to proceed intentionally and thoughtfully.
The following are a couple of ways to discover what a child knows about a subject before you attempt a response:
Try Saying This:
If your child asks a challenging question, it’s OK to ask, “What do you think?”
If your child asks, “Are we going to be killed in a terrorist attack?” you can respond, “You seem really worried about a terrorist attack. What have you learned about terrorism?”
Number 3: Clarify the question before answering.
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Make sure you know what your child is asking before you answer. Sometimes, in an effort to be helpful, we launch into a reply before we even know the question. You can do this very simply by restating the question you heard. This communicates to your child that you are listening, and helps you make sure you’ve got the question right.
Try Saying This:
“Let me see if I understand you correctly. You are asking me if…”
“I’m hearing you ask…Am I on track?”
“Do I have this right? You want to know whether…”
“Okay. So you are telling me about …and you want to know…”
Number 4: Understand the reason for the question.
Be aware that frequently, what is important about a question is not the question itself, but why it’s being asked. Kids often ask questions because there’s something deeper on their minds that they don’t know how to express. They aren’t always able to articulate their worries directly so they may hide a question within a question. Be informative, but don’t get too elaborate. Typically, it doesn’t take much detail to quell a child’s basic concerns.
Number 5: Refrain from laughter or sarcasm.
If you can’t quite deal with your own discomfort, that’s okay. Take a deep breath and relax. But, whatever you do, don’t resort to sarcasm or laughter. These common adult ways to diffuse tension only make kids feel humiliated.
Number 6: Listen! Listen! Listen!
Have you ever noticed how quickly an upset child calms down after she has felt heard? Nothing feels better to a child (or an adult, for that matter), than being heard. Kids frequently ask questions without really wanting an answer. Sometimes, they just want to know that you are really listening.
Steps to Active Listening
Step One: Look directly at your child with a pleasant expression on your face.
Step Two: Keep your hands and body still.
Step Three: Don’t interrupt.
Step Four: Periodically make sounds that express interest in what your child is saying, e.g., “Oh”; “Hmmm”; “Uh huh”; or “Oh yeah.”
Step Five: Name your child’s feelings with statements like, “Oh that must make you feel really worried”
Number 7: If you don’t know the answer, say so.
Don’t feel that you have to have all of the answers to every question. There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting your child know that you don’t have an immediate answer, but that you’ll look into it and let them know later on. Just make sure you do get back to them with the answer to their question.
Try Saying This:
“That’s a great question! Let me think about it and get back to you.”
“You know, I don’t have the answer to that one right now. I’m going to check on it and get back to you tomorrow. Okay?”
Number 8: Monitor your own stress level.
Kids are emotional barometers. When you are exhibiting signs of anxiety, your child is likely picking up on it and may begin to express their own anxiety in both verbal and nonverbal ways. Always be honest but simultaneously reassuring.
Try Saying This:
“I know that this event in the news is worrying you, let me tell you what they do at your school to keep you safe.”
Number 9: Offer realistic reassurance.
“You are safe. The war is happening thousands of miles away.”
“I can see why you would be scared about this. But, we’re lucky to live in this country where we are safe.”
“I can tell you don’t feel safe. Is there anything we can do together that would make you feel more safe?”
As parents, you do your best to keep your child safe in the world. They ask you questions about violence because they trust in you to keep them secure. Even when you are caught off guard or feel uncomfortable answering their tough questions, you have what it takes to listen and provide answers that help ease their worries and concerns.