Talk less, listen more
Author's note: As an educator who has taught across grade levels, I have compiled a list of tips for parents to help children process events.
A parent’s first instinct is to shield and protect her children from scary things.
On January 21, 2022 when events unfolded at Colonel Zadok Magruder High School in Montgomery County, where a student was shot in a bathroom, my husband and I spoke in whispers away from our children. We didn’t tell them what was happening because it was too close to home. Literally. We have friends whose children attend Magruder High School. We were trying to process our own emotions and protect our children from the ugliness. In retrospect, we should have prepared them for the inevitable conversations they would have in their classrooms.
On Tuesday, May 24, 2022, there was a mass shooting at a school in Texas. This time involving an elementary school. This happened mere days after the shooting in Buffalo, New York.
Many teachers, sensitive to students’ reactions to the events, set aside their planned lesson plans and took the opportunity to process the events with their students. In addition, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) often has counselors ready to assist students as they try to process events.
As an educator in Montgomery County, I have participated in active shooter drills with my students. I taught as parents pulled kids out of classrooms during the 9/11 attacks. I locked windows and doors during the Beltway Sniper attacks and have been hyper-aware of my surroundings, looking for ways to protect my students in the hallways and classroom after a middle school student wrote a kill list naming my students.
When current events affected my classroom, I made time to acknowledge my students' concerns in a safe space. Over the years, I have helped them process many terrifying events and emotions.
Here are some tips when speaking to children about current events:
1. Young children don’t need to watch the news
Don’t let young children watch the nightly news.
Even if a historical event such as the Capitol Riots is taking place, young children don’t need to see it unfiltered if there's a lot of violence. It leaves them uneasy and scared.
2. Assure children they are SAFE
"Kids seek to understand if they are safe"--W. Daniel Smith, former pediatric play therapist and current kindergarten teacher.
When you talk about events that provoke a fear response, assure your children they are safe.
Former pediatric play therapist and current kindergarten teacher, W. Daniel Smith, advises, “Kids of this developmental stage (i.e. 5 and 6 years old) seek to understand if they are safe during tumultuous events…reassure them that they are safe with their families and stress the importance of making good choices like their parents and teachers demonstrate for them.”
3. Talk Less, LISTEN more
When children share questions and uncertainty, this is the time to talk less and listen more, allowing them to guide the conversation. State the facts and give them space to discuss and share their impressions, thoughts, and feelings. They may bring up the topic repeatedly over time because they need reassurance. Continue telling them they are safe and giving out those extra hugs.
Allow them to voice their anger or fear. Sometimes a proper response is a simple acknowledgment, I know that makes you angry. I’m sorry you are hurt by what you heard and saw. I can hear the frustration in your voice. Tell me more.
4. Point out the Helpers
“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.’”—Fred Rogers
These words are used to soothe preschoolers and can encourage older children to look for the good. Someone will always do the right thing, even when it’s not popular.
5. Be honest
You don’t have to know everything. Children know when you are lying. It’s perfectly okay to say, “I don’t know.”
Filter the information to fit their age and maturity. For example, what you tell a first grader will be different from what you tell a high schooler, even though both answers will be valid.
If nothing else, be present, reassure their safety, and give out extra hugs.
Heather Jauquet holds a Masters of Science degree as a Reading Specialist from Johns Hopkins University. She has taught students kindergarten through eighth grade, written curriculum, and provided cross-curricular reading training for educators in Maryland.