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How to talk with your kids about fear and violence

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The media is a common trigger of anxiety and fear—mass shootings, international war and other modern-day conflicts are prevalent in the 24-hour news cycle. But for children, alarming events can elicit a particularly heightened sense of fear, vulnerability and confusion. Children may feel personally at risk of things like gun violence (especially if they regularly participate in stage "active shooter" drills at school). They can often sense when family members are fearful.  If left unaddressed, a child's anxieties and fears can contribute to a range of physical, emotional, social and academic challenges. 

As a parent or caregiver, being able to speak openly with your children about violence can help ease their fears, teach them useful coping strategies and help them feel more empowered when it comes to prioritizing their safety. Here are three things that may help you feel more prepared for these important conversations. 

1. Make yourself available 

Let your children know that you are available at any time to talk with them about their fears and concerns. Let your children know they can approach you by:  

  • Listening with your full attention 
  • Validating their feelings and answering their questions instead of trying to minimize or ignore them 
  • Never pressuring them to talk (although gentle, age-appropriate prompts—such as asking whether they feel safe in school or suggesting that they draw or act out how they're feeling—may help)

Consider making these kinds of discussions a regular occurrence in your household, instead of dialogue that only happens after something alarming occurs in local or national news. This way, you and your family are not just reacting to crises but instead preparing for them. 

2. Be honest

If you're not being honest with your feelings, it's not reasonable to expect that your child will. Be willing to share your thoughts, feelings and perspectives about distressing events in a way that is appropriate for your child's age and development. This is also a good time to reassure your children that their safety is your number one priority, and that even if you're upset by a recent event you are still doing everything you can to keep the family safe. 

Perfection isn't the goal here. Remember that "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer when you genuinely aren't sure of something. 

3. Take action 

Feeling empowered—feeling like they have the power to do something positive for themselves and their family—can help ease a child's fears about emergencies, both distant and close to home. You can help your child feel more empowered by taking specific action steps as a family. Here are some ideas: 

  • Establish and practice family safety plans. Make sure everyone in your family knows what to do in emergency situations (while making sure that their "job" is age-appropriate). This could include identifying a meet-up location after a fire or natural disaster, knowing what to do if they get lost, and memorizing important contact information, including your home address and the names and phone numbers of trusted neighbors or family members. 
  • Make sure you know the safety procedures at your child's school, if applicable.
  • As a family, agree on some healthy boundaries surrounding media exposure. 
  • Teach your children ways to reduce stress, such as deep breathing, creating art and moving their bodies through play and/or exercise.


Lastly, know when to ask for help, especially if you believe your child is showing signs of intense fear or anxiety such as bedwetting, social withdrawal or declining academic performance.

Would you like to feel more prepared to talk to your children about violence, conflict, war and fear? 

If you're looking for a mental health provider in southern and central Illinois who can help you and your family navigate a challenging issue, find a doctor at SIU Medicine today.

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