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How do I talk to my kids about violence in the news?

Even when we're struggling, our kids look to us for answers. Get age-appropriate ideas for talking -- and listening.

If your kid is on social media, or even just watches YouTube, you can be sure that they've already been exposed to violence on the news. Even if they don't have phones yet, they're hearing bits and pieces from friends and family or from TV, the radio, and the internet. The modern dilemma of managing your own emotions—anger, confusion, sadness— when it comes to violence while also trying to comfort and reassure your kids has become all too frequent—for all of us.

As much as we wish we could shelter our kids from the worst of the world, bad news has a way of reaching them. But even when we're struggling, our kids still look to us for answers. We are the ones who can help them process terrible news and offer hope. Read our tips below for some tips on talking about the news with your kids.

Talking helps.

Ask … and listen. Try to get a sense of what your kids know before launching into an explanation.

  • Younger kids may have overheard adults talking or snippets of TV or radio news, which can be scary and even traumatizing.

  • Older tweens and teens hear about mass shootings and other violence from social media, YouTube, TV, and friends—not always reliable sources for facts.

Try open-ended questions. Feel them out by asking, "What did you hear?," "Where did you hear that?," "What do you know about it?," and "What do you think about it?"

Be honest and direct. It's not necessary to go into extreme detail, but don't try to hide anything, either. Depending on your kids' ages, you can say something simple and succinct like, "A man used a gun to hurt people." Kids will hear all sorts of stuff from others, but you want them to hear the truth from you.

Reassure kids that they're safe and provide some closure. It's important for kids (especially younger ones) to feel that they and their immediate family aren't in danger.

Explain context and offer perspective—in small doses. Around the tween years, kids become interested in and capable of understanding complex social issues. With your life experience, knowledge, and wisdom, you can begin to explain the circumstances around issues of gun violence, racism, and political rhetoric. Not an easy task, but this is the process that gives things meaning and clarity—and it's important for kids to be able to make sense of negative and unpleasant things.

Accept their sources, but expand their horizons. Kids get most of their information on places like YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. Teach them to question what they see by asking themselves, "Who made this?," "Why did they make it?," "What's its point of view?," "What information isn't included?," and "What would my friends think of this?" These media-literacy questions help kids evaluate information, think beyond the clickbait headline or meme, and look more deeply into a topic.

Offer hope. Exposure to sad and depressing news can make kids world-weary. But knowing they can contribute something positive to the world can counter those feelings. Talk about meaningful ways you can reduce future problems, whether it's attending a rally as a family or signing a petition. Banding together helps kids feel better and recognize that they're not alone in their sadness. It also boosts the resilience they'll need their whole lives—and it may actually benefit the greater good.

What else you can do.

  • Develop empathy. It may not feel like much in the face of tragedy, but reading books and watching TV shows and movies that tackle social issues can help kids see the world from others' perspectives.
  • Discuss hate speech. Our research shows that kids are exposed to hate speech online—including racist and homophobic slurs—even more than cyberbullying. And it's not just happening on fringe sites like 8chan: Instagram memes and popular YouTubers spread it, too. Sometimes, for various reasons, kids feel connected to this kind of online cruelty. Don't be afraid to broach that subject. Ask kids what they've encountered and discuss strategies for dealing with it.
  • Understand the connection between violent games and actual violence. After mass shootings, politicians and pundits look for answers and frequently blame video games and other violent media. Here are the facts: For most people, playing violent video games doesn't cause them to act out. But for vulnerable folks—such as those who have experienced violence in their homes or communities—violent media could be one of many factors that contribute to aggression.

Take care.

Don't feel like you need to cover everything in one sitting. Mostly just be there for your kids. Note how they're reacting and give them extra hugs if they seem to need it.

Jill Murphy

Jill Murphy is Editor-in-Chief and Head of Distribution at Common Sense Media. Jill joined Common Sense in January 2005, built the editorial department with founding Editor-in-Chief Liz Perle, and served as Deputy Managing Editor and later Managing Editor before becoming Editorial Director in 2010. She oversees the ratings and reviews for all media channels, including movies, TV, games, web, apps, music, and books. She's responsible for all parenting advice content, from conception to publication -- including tips, articles, and recommended lists. She has developed a variety of new content products, including our parent blog. Jill also works closely with content partners including Huffington Post, Yahoo!, DirecTV, Comcast, Netflix, and more to further leverage Common Sense Media's content library. Jill's commitment to Common Sense gives her the opportunity to help families avoid the TV shows she's devoted to (she's our resident expert on any and all reality TV). When she must, she shares the TV with her two young daughters, who watch Doc McStuffins and Word Girl; her husband, who watches sports and can't wait for more Walking Dead; and her dogs, who watch the door. Jill holds a BA from San Francisco State University in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts, with an emphasis on writing and media literacy.