Explaining a violent crime to children takes a combination of truth and discretion.
What actually happened: Three robbers in my house in the night; it turned violent and ended with a severed artery in my face, blood spatter like the opening scene from a TV episode, and some missing possessions.
What I told the children
: Some bad men took some of our things, but the house is safe.
Having been the victim of previous burglaries, and seen their reaction to damaged property and their parent’s distress, I knew better than to just let them sit back and watch the events unfolding. Fortunately, they hadn’t been with me that night, so they weren’t exposed to the mess and fear. Still, it was one of those adrenalin-rush experiences where you talk about it in shock, and forget that tiny ears are trying to make sense of an adult conversation.
Something to avoid is having friends come around while your children are present, and rehashing the same story over and over, while your friends tell you their own personal or hearsay experiences of violence. It’s important that children get to process one particular event without having to see it as a pattern in society.
That’s hard to do if the event was so traumatic that you yourself aren’t able to process it or speak to them. As an adult going through a traumatic experience
, the trauma is a combination of what actually happened, as well as the chilling realisation of what could have happened.
Children tend to listen to the facts, and create their own set of anxieties: ‘What if the bad men come and take my toys? If the bad men come back and try to hurt my daddy, I will do karate on them…’ Or just simply: ‘What’s that noise?’
They can process it as something unusual, something bad, and something over which their invincible parent had no control. If the children were present during the experience, it would be wise to involve third party counselling through a school social worker or a professional trauma counsellor. Indications of your child struggling to process a violent or traumatic event could be persistent nightmares
, or obsessive retelling of the “story”. They may also withdraw from friends or activities they enjoy, and even experience decreased academic performance.
Three children: three different ages. The best way to get inside those minds is to ask them what they think, and not tell them what to think. I sat down with them and chatted in a way that they could see I was calm (faking it completely!) and managed to downplay the seriousness of the situation by sticking to a mild version of the facts to defuse the fear.
Projecting confidence, in combination with increasing security measures helps to instil their own security. You can’t always resolve all of their questions, so reading up on websites or chatting to a school counsellor yourself can be helpful.
It’s not something you can plan beforehand, but your response can be constructive if you step back from the situation and translate the experience for them into words they can understand.
Have you had to explain a violent crime to your child? Share below or email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org