The current election season has put an even greater focus on the extent of the violence around us both as terrorism and random gun violence. The specter of each has raised fears, and ongoing discussion about the prevalence and accessibility of guns. Television, the internet and social media give ample coverage and photographs of various acts that have occurred, and it is increasingly difficult for parents to monitor what their children see and hear.
In what way do children take this in? Does it create anxiety? Do they tune it out as much as possible? We know that generally, children are more aware of what is going on around them than they show and their seeming indifference to events that disturb us may be misleading. Wanting to protect our children we sometimes make the mistake of closing off potential discussion about things that we may feel are frightening.
Actually, it is because of the prevalence of media coverage and the fact that children are surrounded by all kinds of information, that parents have an even greater challenge to strive for the kind of communication with their children that will elicit conversations in which children feel free to express their thoughts and feelings. Such conversations can also provide a forum in which to correct misinformation or distortions that children may have that can arouse needless anxiety.
Various current and past events really require two kinds of conversation with our children: one about mental illness, the other about terrorism. The way we have these conversations depend on the ages of our children and their degree of awareness of the world around them. While we may be unsure of their degree of active awareness, we have some sense of the kinds of information they have been exposed to.
A focus on mental illness has been a consequence of some of the mass shootings that have taken place. Several of the perpetrators of this violence have been found retrospectively to be mentally ill. On the other hand, many of the fearful shootings have involved the use of weapons thought to be more appropriate for military than civilian use.
The conflict between those who are committed to protecting gun ownership rights and those who advocate restrictions on the availability of such weapons continues to be intense. At times this conflict itself seems almost to reach the level of violence. It has also intensified the concern about mental illness, both in terms of the realistic relationship to some violent events but also in the attempt to attribute all gun violence to the mentally ill.
Children may have different ideas about what mental illness is – again depending on their age and developmental stage. All children know what being sick is and that it at times means medicine and being away from other people. Mental illness may be somewhat more obscure but what is clear is that it often causes people to behave in ways that are harmful to themselves or to other people. We need to do a better job of helping them get well before they act in these harmful ways.
The subject of terrorism is perhaps more complicated in that it involves a discussion of the destructive ways people try to impose their beliefs on others. Children can understand and relate to this idea when it is translated into relationships and social behavior they themselves have experienced. For example, school age children know about the school yard bully, or the mean things some children do to get their own way. Older children may be ready for a discussion about political beliefs; what we believe as compared to those who are using violence in the service of their beliefs.
In having conversations that will elicit children’s own ideas and feelings it is best to remember that children do not do well with lots of questions which tend to turn them off. Instead, talking about what we ourselves have heard or are thinking about is more likely to help a child join the conversation with his own ideas. As parents we have to be clear about our own values because that is what will inform the language we use, and the ideas we choose to convey to our children.
Hopefully, we have established the kind of relationship with our children that has enabled us to talk about things that are difficult, and that we feel comfortable sharing with our children the fact that we ourselves, don’t have all the answers.