Today, local, national or international tragedies happen so frequently that they can feel almost commonplace. When a hate crime, mass shooting, act of terrorism or other terrible and hate-inspired event occurs, one of the first questions many people ask is, what should we tell the children? How can we explain to them what has happened?
Despite our best efforts to protect youth from the details of hate-motivated events, we can never assume that they are unaware of what is happening around them. Through the internet, social media and mobile communication, youth—even very young children—quickly become aware of events of significance in their community and world, and need opportunities to process their feelings and share their fears in sensitive and age-appropriate ways.
Feelings of fear, powerlessness and vulnerability are common experiences all people share whenever acts of hatred, terrorism, or mass shootings occur, and feelings are personally compounded when the perpetrators are targeting a specific group of people to which we may identify. Children and teens are not immune to these feelings, but adults can help by providing information that answers their questions, giving them opportunities to express how they feel, reassuring them that adults in their lives are working to keep them safe, and helping them channel their feelings into positive actions in their own lives and communities.
Before any discussion begins, every effort should be made to create an environment where children will feel comfortable expressing their feelings and views. The strategies and tools in Creating an Anti-Bias Learning Environment provide a useful resource.
Family Conversations about Hate Incidents, Terrorism and Bias-Motivated Violence
Every child’s development follows a varied and unique pace, and the skills needed to dialogue effectively with them evolve as they grow. When incidents of hate, acts of terrorism and acts of bias-motivated violence occur in your community or in the broader society, children and teens necessarily have concerns and fears. Consider the needs, challenges and individual personalities of the young people in your life before deciding how to approach the conversation. And, when beginning the conversations, take a few minutes for your young person to think about some rules that would help them to feel safe, especially when they want to talk about issues that may be scary or unfamiliar to them. As they make suggestions, you may want to write them down. (Click here for some general guidelines for young people of different ages.)
Ground Rules for Discussion
Prior to engaging in a discussion about the ideas and feelings of young people about a recent incident of violence or hate, it is helpful to create ground rules that promote a safe and supportive atmosphere where youth feel comfortable and where they perceive that their ideas and feelings are accepted and valued. As a family member engaging in these conversations, you will not need formal “ground rules” but it is important to set a tone of safety, respect, listening and confidentiality.
How can we begin and continue conversations about terror and violence with youth? What can we say or do to help our young people feel safe?
Below are some additional recommendations to guide discussions with children and teens:
- Before talking with children or teens, make sure you feel prepared to discuss the incident and/or topic.
- Treat all young people’s questions with respect and seriousness.
- Answer questions as clearly and honestly as you can and use simple language in terms they can understand.
- Young people often struggle to understand why these incidents take place and what motivates people who perpetrate these crimes.
- Be alert for signs of distress in children.
- Ask young people what they are hearing from friends, classmates and through social media.
- It is always very useful to highlight for children the people who helped the victims and their families during these incidents as well as those who supported them afterwards.
Lesson Plans You Can Use
Ground Rules for Discussion (PDF): An activity for upper elementary, middle and high school students to help create ground rules that promote a safe and supportive atmosphere where youth feel comfortable and where they perceive that their ideas and feelings are accepted and valued.
Balancing the Good and the Bad (PDF): An activity that provides upper elementary school students an opportunity to investigate some of the bad and hateful things that happen in society as well as good or helpful things that people do to fight hate.
The Trouble with Stereotypes (PDF): An activity that provides upper elementary school students an opportunity to examine how people develop stereotypes and to consider how stereotypes can lead to prejudice and other hate behaviors.
Remembering Those Hurt by Hate (PDF): An activity that provides middle and high school students an opportunity to remember people who have been hurt by hate and to create a unique way to express their hopes that such events will not happen again.
The Escalation of Hate (PDF): An activity that provides middle and high school students the opportunity to examine the escalating nature of hate and to consider the difficulty of stopping the progression once it begins.