Helping Children Deal With Violence in the News

In recent years, there has been increasing discussion about the harmful impact of violence on children, including during their first few years of school. We tend to focus on children who are direct victims of violence, or those who see violence in movies, TV, video games, and media-linked toys, but another important issue is their exposure to violence in the news.

As more violence is reported in the news and as young children spend more time involved with media or hear about news stories from older siblings or peers, they are more likely to hear disturbing news. When this happens, children often need opportunities to work out their thoughts and feelings, which may be very different from those of adults. Some children will talk about the news events, but many will look for other, more concrete ways to express their feelings about violence they've seen. When they do, they need parents and teachers to help them make sense of what they have heard, help them feel safe, and help them see alternatives to violence.

After September 11th, parents and teachers everywhere reported children making tall block buildings and then crashing them down. There were similar stories of block play after the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995. This type of dramatic play allows children to suspend reality and create outcomes in which they are in control and feel safe - among their greatest needs as they deal with violence. Over time, this block play may change, as children pretend to be rescue workers who put out the fires, or doctors taking injured people to the hospital. Adults can help by making sure the play does not become too scary, providing firefighter and medical equipment and other meaningful props at opportune moments as well as by observing the play to identify particular areas in which children may need special adult support.

Some children may have a hard time bringing up the disturbing news stories they've seen. It can help to engage in regular discussions of the "news," to help young children become more comfortable. Most of the time children will talk about such "news" as sports, the weather, and their own direct experiences with families and friends because they tend to focus on what is important to them at that moment. Also, it may take them a while to learn that it is OK to raise more disturbing issues and to develop the language they need for talking about what they know.

When more serious topics come up, try not to worry about having the "right answer". Try to use a give-and-take approach. Ask open-ended questions to find out more about what children know, understand, and are concerned about. Respect and reflect back their comments. Encourage children to respond to each other. Provide information to clear up misconceptions and try to bring up alternative solutions to the violence they describe. Wherever possible, try to point out positive stories in the news - examples of people helping people in big and little ways - so children see that along with the bad things that happen, there are many people who are working hard to create a caring and peaceful world. Help them participate in such positive acts in their own lives as well.

By helping children deal with the violence they hear about in the world, we can contribute to their overall sense of safety and wellbeing. We can also help them learn alternatives to the violence they see in the news, and build the foundation they need to live together in peace.

Diane Levin is a professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College. This article is adapted from "Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom (2nd Edition)" by Diane E. Levin - co-published by NAEYC and Educators for Social Responsibility.

© National Association for the Education of Young Children