Helping Children Understand Violence and Tragedy

Recent sad events have unfortunately reminded us that we have a responsibility to our young children to help them hear and understand reports of violence and tragedy. I think it is important to always begin with reassuring children that they are safe and being cared for, because scary stories remind them that they are vulnerable people living in a world that is sometimes dangerous.  Pointing out and even walking around and noticing signs of safety are comforting.  The locks on doors and windows, the bicycle helmets, the seat belts and air bags, the people driving around in the police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances are all concrete evidence of carefulness, protection, and helpfulness.

It also matters a lot to young children to know that you and other caring adults are “on the job” and “doing your jobs” to protect and care for them—this assurance is essentially what allows the child to relax instead of feeling an anxious urgency to step up and try to do a job they are unprepared and ill-equipped for.

Another important service that parents and teachers provide for children is expanding their view of tragedy.  Children, and adults too, need not be overexposed to all the news available 24/7.  But sometimes it will happen.  People of every age find themselves compelled to pay attention to the train wreck, the shocking photo or video image, the frightening news.

What children are missing is the ability to see the event in a wider perspective and to understand that most people are mostly safe most of the time.  I remember how amazed my 5 year old son was when I told him that I had never seen anyone in my whole life pull out a gun and shoot someone.  Not in my school, not in front of the grocery store, not in the street.  How easy it was for him to draw the conclusion that this was a regular event happening all around him.  He could not filter and interpret news about shootings and other acts of violence, but I could do that for him.

Another part of a wider perspective is to draw a child’s attention to the many, many people who come running as fast as they can to restore safety and healing when a tragedy occurs.  The bigger the tragedy, the more people come running.  Yes, sometimes there are sad and sick and angry people who do bad things.  But there are many, many, many more good and kind and generous people who want to stop bad things from happening and restore goodness to the world.

This is a lesson I originally learned from one of my favorite parenting teachers, Fred Rogers.  Known as “Mr. Rogers” to an earlier generation, he had this to say:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Even the most difficult tragedies can help a child learn that our world is basically a good place to live and people are almost always kind and caring.  It isn’t a perfect world—and never will be—but even when sad and bad things happen, children can learn from the people who love them to trust that there will always be good people working to restore goodness in the world.