As images of violence escalate, how do we talk to our children? Column
Police-involved and mass shootings can negatively influence kids. Turn their attention to other things.
The recent spate of police-involved shootings in Chicago, Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minnesota have put everyone on high alert. Mass shootings such as the ones that happened this year in Germany and Florida continue to feed our fears. It is almost impossible not to feel growing anxiety as the incessant reports roll into our news feeds.
While the debate rages about whether we need more or less gun control and who is to blame, a generation of children are growing up saturated with what seem like more negative, violent images than ever before. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine shows a strong connection between exposure to violent media and post-traumatic stress and emotional distress in journalists.
But violence may have long since taken its toll on young people.
Policing the USA
Even though depression was found more in adult females ages 40 to 59, it also showed up in kids as young as 12, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted between 2009 and 2012 found that 7.6% of Americans 12 and older have suffered from symptoms of moderate or severe depression.
In addition, 8.3% of children suffer from anxiety disorders with severe impairment, according to a 2015 Children's Mental Health Report released by the Child Mind Institute.
Many parents are unsure how to support their children through this time of dramatically publicized violence.
How do we address the indirect traumatization of a nation of children?
How do we soothe ourselves and our children as we watch repeated images of shootings?
We must not become irate in front of our children. While it might feel good momentarily to rant, incendiary vitriol contributes to the problem, whipping up stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol, in excess,
can increase anxiety. Simmering and stewing in an “us vs. them” rage is not only exhausting for the people around us, it also damages our own well-being and doesn’t do a thing to solve the problems we’re so angry about.
To support youth, we must guide their attention toward things that can create calm.
This begins with adults turning away from violent media images. It begins with glorifying good-heartedness instead of hatred and negativity in ways that young people can observe and want to emulate. As parents, we can pass on to our children an unwavering commitment to see and encourage the best in people.
What youth rehearse, or practice daily, becomes wired into their brain circuitry and patterning for life, according to Daniel Siegel, a clinical psychiatrist who has studied how family environment influences childhood behavior. Parents can influence whether children make a habit of scanning for violence and pumping their bodies with fear, or practicing habits that perpetuate gratitude, empathy and joy. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley cites research that shows kindness can actually make us happier people.
Here are simple steps to help your child focus on the positive:
Join with your child once a day and say out loud three specific things you each are grateful for.
Spend time in a natural setting with your child and play without electronic devices.
Tell each other every day what you enjoy most about each other. No one ever suffers from too much earnest appreciation.
Adults should stay informed. This is not a call to bury our heads in the sand. It is a call to make careful choices about where we get our news and how we react to the news in front of children. How much bad, gruesome news do we really need to stay informed?
We are imbued with the freedom to select the objects of our attention.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”
If we want to reclaim civil conversation and positive experiences in America, and to demonstrate those qualities to young people, we need to actively steer the small and big talk toward healthful connection.
How should we talk to our youth about shootings and other violent happenings? Softly, and not that much.
Jennifer Freed is the author of the Become Your Best Self workbook series and Lessons From Stanley the Cat. She is the co-founder and executive director of the AHA! Peace Builders program, which focuses on teaching social and emotional learning to thousands of youth and their families.