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How to talk with youth about violence: Tips for youth workers

By Jennifer Skuza

Sad teen girlActs of violence seem to face our youth at every turn. According to CNN, 15 school shootings have occurred already this year, most recently taking the life of 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo of Colorado. While such violence is hard for adults to process, youth look to us for guidance on how to react. We can help them feel safe by establishing a sense of security and talking with them about their fears.

Here are some ways to approach these difficult conversations

  1. Make time to talk. Let their questions be your guide. Be patient. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you work. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.
  2. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Help children to talk about their feelings, put them into perspective and express their feelings appropriately.

Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate

  • Early elementary-aged children need brief, simple information and reassurances that their programs, schools and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of safety such as locked doors, playground supervision and emergency drills.
  • Upper elementary and early-middle-grade children will ask questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their program or school. They may need help to separate reality from fantasy or false narratives. Discuss efforts to create safe spaces.
  • Upper middle school and high school youth will have varying opinions about the causes of violence and how to prevent it. Emphasize how they can be involved in maintaining safe spaces by following safety guidelines, communicating safety concerns to adult leaders and accessing emotional support.
  • Review safety procedures. Help children identify at least one adult to whom they can go if they feel threatened or at risk.
  • Observe children’s emotional state. Changes in behavior can indicate anxiety or discomfort. Children who have had traumatic experiences or personal loss, suffer from mental illness, or have special needs may have more severe reactions. Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
  • Limit media viewing of these events. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Be mindful of conversations you have in front of children, even teenagers. Limit their exposure to hateful or angry comments.
  • Maintain a normal routine. Regular schedules and healthy activities can be reassuring and promote physical health. Encourage youth to keep up with school work and extracurricular activities, but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.

Emphasize these points when talking to young people about violence

  • We each play a role in safety. Let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or scared.
  • There's a difference between reporting and tattling or gossiping. Information you share with a trusted adult may prevent harm.
  • Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. They may be unable to handle their anger, influenced by drugs or alcohol, or mentally ill. Adults work hard to get those people help. We should all know how to get help if we feel upset or angry and to stay away from drugs and alcohol as false coping mechanisms.
  • Stay away from weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun or other weapon. Easy access to weapons is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.
  • Violence is never a solution to personal problems. Youth can be part of the solution by participating in anti-violence programs, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from a caring adult.

I hope these ideas help you support children and youth amidst acts of violence.  This information was adapted from National Association of School Psychologists resources. I encourage you to visit our website for additional resources on bullying, grief and related topics.

-- Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD, associate dean and Minnesota 4-H state director

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