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Talking to Children about Hate Crimes and Mass Violence

The recent events are a difficult reminder of the painful consequences of racism and hatred. People commonly experience sadness, worry, confusion, and anger when learning of recent events involving the senseless death of an African American during an encounter with the police. Children may also experience strong reactions and will turn to trusted adults for help and guidance. To help children, here are some strategies for how to talk with them about what
happened.

Here are some helpful tips to follow:

Start the discussion:

  • Talk about the incident with your children/teens. While this is a difficult topic, this is an important time to share your values with your child and model appropriate conversation around hard topics and feelings. Before you sit down with your children, you may need some time to talk with other adults to process for yourself what you are hearing and to address your own reactions. With traditional and social media, teenagers likely have heard about the senseless death of George Floyd, and others before him, the peaceful protests and the rioting/looting. Provide a level of information and discussion that is appropriate for your child’s developmental level.
    • What does your child already know? Ask them what they’ve already heard about these events and aftermath. As your children talk, listen for misinformation, and underlying fears or concerns. Understand that this information could change in the days ahead.
    • For Preschool Children: Consider what they have seen or heard. Do not assume that they do not sense your emotions or have not heard your conversations. Be mindful of exposing them to adult conversations. As noted above, listen, clarify, and address misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears or concerns.

Gently correct incorrect information: 

  • Take time to provide the correct information in language your children/teens can understand. Teens may also want to talk about situations where they have experienced or witnessed discrimination or hate.

Encourage your children/teens to ask questions and answer questions directly:

  • Your children may have some difficult questions about the recent events or similar experiences they may have had. For example, they may ask if it is possible that an encounter with police will lead to death for them or their friends. Be open and honest in acknowledging any reasonable likelihood of this as a risk. However, they are also asking if they are safe. Therefore, this is a good time to review plans your family has of assuring safety in the event of any crisis situation. Include in your answers any information you may have on efforts being made to assure safety. Like adults, children/teens are better able to cope with a difficult situation if they feel they have the information that they need to be safe.

Understand common reactions:

  • Children/teens may have different reactions to these events. In the immediate aftermath of this senseless death, problems with attention and concentration may arise. Increases in irritability and defiance may be present. Children and even teens may have more difficulty separating from parents, wanting to stay at home or with other caregivers. Worries and anxieties about what has happened, what is happening, what may happen in the future, and how this will affect their lives are common. As this event and other hate crimes are discussed across our country, children/teens who were not directly affected may have anxieties that “it could happen to me.” Sleep and appetite may also be affected. Support from you will help with feelings of safety and security.

Limit adult conversations:

  • Be mindful that children/teens are sensitive to your stress. Know that they also listen to your conversations, even when you don’t believe they can hear you. Children may not understand all of your conversations and will fill in the blanks, many times with inaccurate information. While the recent events have raised concerns for adults, have discussions about your feelings and thoughts with other adults out of your child’s or teen’s presence.

Limit media exposure: 

  • For the very young children, there is truly no “good” amount. For older children and teens, they will likely have contact with traditional and social media. The younger the child, the less the exposure to media there should be. Consider limiting your own exposure to media.

Be patient:

  • In times of stress, children/teens may have more trouble with their behavior, concentration, and attention. Even if they may not openly seek your understanding or support, they will want this. With adolescents who are searching for an increased sense of independence, they may have trouble asking you for support and help. Children/teens will need a little extra patience, care, and love. (Be patient with yourself too!)

Extra help: 

  • Should reactions continue or at any point interfere with your children’s/teens’ abilities to function or if you are worried, contact local mental health professionals who have expertise in trauma. Contact your family physician, pediatrician, or state mental health associations for referrals to such experts.

Download our tip sheet here