Positive Conversations about Violence in the News - Promise

Positive Conversations about Violence in the News

With the current social unrest over election results and violence at the Capitol Building, your children may ask questions about what they see on the news. Here are some tips on how to respond.

State the facts

I recommend that parents respond to tough questions from their kids with a simple statement of facts, followed by questions of their own. If a child asks, “What is the fighting about?” you might respond: “People who support President Trump are upset he didn’t win the election.” You might follow up by asking questions about what your child thinks about the violence, what they have heard (from friends, media, etc.) and what parts are confusing to them.

Asking questions first will likely lead to a better conversation with your child. As you respond, try to help your child understand the topic better or correct misconceptions by offering facts. Use the simplest explanation you can for your child’s level of development.

Be Honest and Share Your Values

Suppose your child asks if you agree or disagree with the election results. Your job is not only to answer honestly but to seize the opportunity to talk about your own personal values and to clearly explain why you hold those values. For example, you could say (whether or not you agree with the results) that one of the wonderful aspects of living in a democracy is that we all have the right to freely express our beliefs. If we feel strongly about something, our constitution guarantees us the right to express ourselves and to protest peacefully. There are many ways to peacefully express dissent without inciting rage and violence.

Answer the Tough Questions

Your child might ask about the recent heartbreaking events in our nation’s capital. Children and parents alike are struggling to make sense of the barrage of information and images. Events like this only add to the stress many children are experiencing from the ongoing pandemic and the economic and psychological impacts on their families. Again, the simplest answer that is factually accurate should guide your response. For example, you might say, “Those people on the news felt angry and turned to violence, destroying property and hurting others. Violence is never the way to resolve conflict.”

Children may ask about public figures’ and the media’s views and comments as well. They, of course, have the right to express themselves, too. Before you answer, use this as another opportunity to counter with questions. You might ask, “What did you think about what [the public figure] said?” Be sure to emphasize your family’s values about how you talk to and treat people. Children are naturally empathetic, use this as an opportunity to build their empathy and passion to speak out against violence.

Others May Disagree

Older children may come to you about friends and schoolmates who disagree with their point of view on this issue – or any issue. Again, the key is to ask as well as answer. Ask the child how they managed a disagreement with a peer. Did they respond and, if so, how did they feel about the exchange? Before providing a response to your teenager, you might ask, “Would you like to know what I think?”

Parents may try to reduce their own anxiety about tough issues by giving canned advice. I recommend they resist the urge to immediately dole out advice. It’s much better to ask questions first and then have a conversation guided by your personal and family values.

Outline the facts as they are, your value system and how you demonstrate it, without being judgmental with regard to “the other side.”

To encourage healthy discourse about difficult topics such as violence in our country, it’s important to have conversations with our children early and often. Even if your children don’t raise the subject of political violence, it might be beneficial to bring it up anyway. Parents tend to practice avoidance as a way of managing their discomfort with tough topics. Your silence on the topic might communicate a powerful message to your children (e.g., this is not our problem, we shouldn’t talk about these things). If these issues are important enough to your family, start the conversation!

Roger Harrison, PhD

About Roger Harrison, PhD

Roger Harrison, PhD, is a clinical psychologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children