Speaking with children about violence
St. Michael’s Youth Together Coordinator Kathleen O’Donoghue offers guidance to help children and families find peace and comfort during troubling times
Fear. It is palpable today. People everywhere, of all races and social groups are feeling it. Regardless of how far away you live from the terrible tragedies of these past weeks, we all experience anxiety and fear about a world out of control and our children feel this even more.
How then, can we start a conversation with our children about some of the issues that seem to dominate these acts of violence toward civilians and police officers?
Many suggest that these are issues of hate or xenophobia or anger and hostility that have overtaken us as a country. Some think it’s about a lack of gun control, some a lack of mental health services, or just evil in the world. All of these things may be true in some respect, but I believe under it all is the foundation of fear.
As parents and educators, I believe our task is to help expand our children’s understanding of the world, while at the same time helping them to feel safe in it during tumultuous times.
Here are some thoughts on how to begin these conversations:
1. Spend time with your children and youth.
This can just be family time, reading or playing a board game. You modeling a calm presence is very important to your children and their feelings of safety. Kids of all ages hear things from friends, online and on the TV and may be worried by themselves in their room. Isolating oneself often magnifies fear, and may lead to thinking no one else is worried about the state of the world.
2. Limit, if possible, your children and youth’s exposure to graphic images and disturbing details of awful acts.
If you feel you need to watch those videos or Facebook Live feeds to understand what is happening, you can do that out of both eye and ear range of your kids. There is something to be said however, for protecting your own hearts from this graphic coverage as well. I am not saying not watching it makes it go away, but that seeing it yourself only increases your own injury as you try to care for your children’s spirits.
3. Make information you choose to share developmentally appropriate for your child’s age.
Kids cannot tolerate the level of chaos we see every day. The youngest child might only need to know that people are making bad choices to hurt each other instead of talking about what they are afraid of. An older child might be able to hear that police have shot a number of unarmed young men and we don’t understand why. They might also be able to hear that the Black community is particularly afraid of this because it seems to be happening to them more than other communities. The news from Dallas might that someone intentionally hurt and killed people we rely on to keep us safe is very scary, especially for police officers and their families. Ask older children what they have seen or heard and then ask what they are thinking or what they want to understand better.
4. Understand that this is a time to triage and respond to a crisis, but the larger longer conversation about racism and fear of the unknown is just as important.
Most recently, our conversation is about the Black community being treated differently and more harshly by the police. This is not our only recent story though. In Orlando, 49 members of the LGBTQ community were killed. In Dallas, police murdered while they protected a crowd of peaceful protesters. Fear permeates our lives and seems to either make people rise up and protect others, or reach out and attack. How can we create a more resilient, less fearful spirit in our children today and as we move forward? Not surprisingly, I suggest coming to church! Find a solid foundation for your family in a community that allows you to wrestle with the tensions of faith and justice, belief and fear. Sit with those who believe in a merciful God who understands the flaws and weaknesses of humanity and still wants the best from us.
5. Be the change you wish to see.
Reach out to someone and do something kind and unexpected for them! Write a card of appreciation to your Police Department, telling them you think and pray for their safety every day (and then do that!!!) Send a card to a pastor in a nearby church, thanking her or him for their ministry in the community during these fearful times. Participate at a rally with or without your kids, as age appropriate. Demonstrate that you are standing in solidarity with those who are feeling unsafe.
We at St. Michael’s are available to speak with you, your children and youth, individually or together, about how all this violence and fear affects them. Please feel free to contact our Church Office at [email protected], or 617-698-1813. You may also contact me directly via email at [email protected].
God’s blessings upon each of you today and every day, giving you strength and wisdom in your life and in your family’s life.
–Kathleen O’Donoghue, Youth Together Coordinator for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church
About Kathleen O’Donoghue
Kathy O’Donoghue leads the Junior and Senior High Youth Groups at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Milton, Mass. She supports and guides young parishioners in community outreach projects, teaches the importance of social responsibility and service to others, and creates space for genuine fellowship. Kathy earned her M.Ed from Capella University in Minneapolis, and M.Div from North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. She has over thirty years of experience working with children and currently serves Big Brothers and Big Sisters as a Match Support Coordinator. She is a foster, adoptive, and birth parent of a family of amazing children. For more information or to join St. Michael’s Youth Group, contact Kathy directly at [email protected], or the Church Office at 617-698-1813, [email protected].