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How to talk to children about a violent event: Q & A with Dr. Rachel Mitchell

Written by Lindsay Smith

After a violent event, it can be difficult to know how to approach the topic with your children. When is the appropriate time, and how can you talk about it without scaring them? Dr. Rachel Mitchell, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Sunnybrook, provides some insight for parents.

How should parents approach a discussion about a violent event with their children? 

First, check in on yourself. How are you doing? Having a calm frame of mind can help make it easier to discuss the topic. It’s okay if you’re not ready immediately following news of the event. If you find you’re not in the right frame of mind, wait until you are. That’s always step number one.

Find the space and time for the discussion. It’s easier without the pressure of running out the door before school, or rushing between events or appointments. Find a time when everyone can focus. It’s also important to talk in a calm environment.

If a child asks you about the violent event at a time when you’re not ready, or you are rushing out the door, you can say, “Let’s find another time to talk about this.” Having said that, it’s important that the conversation actually happens because not discussing the topic could potentially lead to increased anxiety for the child.

How can parents keep their composure while discussing these events? Do they have to?

Parents don’t need to keep their composure all the time. Strong emotions are normal, especially when the discussion is about violent or tragic events. Showing emotion lets your children know it’s okay for them to have emotions, and it fosters connection between parent and the child. It also validates how they’re feeling.

And if they tell you or show you they’re scared, validate those feelings. It’s to be expected in moments like these.

How do you talk about these topics in an age-appropriate way? 

Every developmental stage and child is different, so try to cater to that individual age and child. For younger children, it can be helpful to provide concrete information rather than abstract explanations which may be more difficult for this age group to comprehend. When it comes to having the conversation with teenagers, parents can consider speaking with them like adults. They’ve likely seen or heard the most recent headlines and have a good understanding of the issue.

Parents may want to ask children and youth what they know and listen to their answers. You don’t need to give them any more information than they ask for because it could be too overwhelming, but don’t feel you need to protect them from information either. The truth is always best.

Avoiding the truth can perpetuate anxiety. Imaginations can run wild, and they will sense they don’t know the truth. Children can be very astute, and what they don’t know can cause anxiety.

Be prepared for the conversation to come up again. Children will likely have more questions that may come up at unexpected times.

How can parents gauge when issues are bothering their child(ren) and when it might be time to seek professional help?

For the most part, children are quite resilient and can cope with the support and help of their loved ones. Some children may feel more distress, though, so it’s important to be aware of some warning signs. If a child is not eating, sleeping or talking, needs constant reassurance or is withdrawing —and these behaviours are persistent— you should reach out to your family doctor.

If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

About the author

Lindsay Smith