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Parenting Press looks at
National Violence

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An Overview on Talking to Your Kids About Violence


10 Tips to Help Kids Deal with Violence


How to Talk to Your Kids About Feelings

How to Talk to Your Kids About Feelings

You can use any situation to help children understand feelings. This is true for the national violence on September 11 as well as any national or personal disaster. To help children deal with their feelings: acknowledge kids’ feelings, offer them tools to deal with those feelings and ways to deal with the situation.

Acknowledge feelings

The easiest way to acknowledge feelings is to talk about them. You can talk about your feelings or reflect kids’ emotions.

Model your feelings. Children know when a grownup is upset. It is helpful to share your feelings with your child. You might say, “When I heard the announcement this morning, I was shocked. It was hard to believe what happened.” Or, “When I heard the news, I was afraid something might have happened to my sister in New York City.” You might elaborate, “I didn’t realize how upset I was until I realized until I noticed my stomach ache.” You don’t need to go into great detail about your feelings, just enough to make feelings “discussable.”

Reflect the child’s feelings. Children learn about feelings by having them labeled in context. You can label your feelings or those of the children. Reflect what you think the child is feeling. For example, “It looks like you’re sad for all the people who died.” Or, “I’m wondering if you’re scared that a plane will crash in our town too.” When you reflect your child’s feelings, include both the feeling itself and the situation that precipitated it. Let the child know that other people feel similarly. For example, “I’ll bet a lot of kids are wondering if more buildings will be attacked.” Tune in to your kids and focus on their feelings.

Offer tools to deal with feelings

Identifying feelings is helpful, but it is not enough. We need to give children skills to deal with those feelings. Again we can do that by sharing how we cope and offering kids specific tools.

Share ways you calm yourself. Comment on what you tried and how it worked. You might say, “I was so upset this morning that I took a walk in the park. Somehow the trees and bushes helped calm me.” Or, “When I heard the news, I cried and cried. Crying helped me feel better.”

Offer your child ways to calm himself or herself. Feelings are valid, however few people want to stay sad or scared or angry. Offer your children several ways to calm themselves. For example, “You look scared. Would you like to draw a picture of how you feel, or ask me to hold you?” Or you might ask, “What would help you feel safer?”

When you offer ideas, consider what activities have helped your child calm himself or herself. For babies and toddlers, you can simply comfort them. With older children, however, it is more useful to let your child be in charge.

As children grow older, offer them more ways to calm themselves. A minimum goal might be for children to have as many tools as they are years old. A three-year-old would have three ways to comfort himself. An eight-year-old, eight ways.

Children need a variety of tools – auditory, kinesthetic, visual, self-nurturing, and creative. Depending on your children’s interests and ages, they could listen to music, run around the block, read a book, take a bubble bath or make up a song.

When feelings are very strong or recur, children need to know how to deal with the situation. Children need tools to deal with the situation and they need to know what adults are doing to keep them safe.

Ideas to deal with the situation

As children grow, they will be faced with difficult situations. The more experience they have considering their options, the easier it will be to act. Doing something almost always helps people cope better.

What children can do. Children need to know what they can do about the situation. Their actions can be practical or symbolic. For example, if they were planning to take an airplane trip to see Grandma, they could ask you to cancel the trip and call Grandma instead. Or, they could help develop a disaster plan for their school or home. A symbolic response for a child might be to write a letter to the terrorists and tell them her opinion of their action and what she thinks they could have done instead. The letter its self would not change the situation, but it would focus the child’s thoughts and give her a sense of doing something.

What adults are doing. You can explain that, “The FAA has stopped all air flights until they can figure out how to make things safer.” It is also the adults’ job to see that schools are safe for children. You can explain that what you see is terrible, but most children grow up without experiencing a disaster.

Talking about feelings helps children deal with their feelings. This is particularly true when you acknowledging the children’s feelings, offering them self-calming tools and ways to deal with the situation. Although this article focuses on dealing with feelings caused by a national disaster, the approach can be used in all situations including earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and accidents. Remember, also, to reflect and celebrate pleasant feelings.

by Elizabeth Crary

  Please feel free to reproduce the material on this page for educational purposes as long as the material is appropriately attributed to Elizabeth Crary. For more information on this article, please call (800) 992-6657, ext. 105 or e-mail our marketing department with “Talking about Feelings” in the subject line.

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Last updated February 03, 2017