How parents and teachers can talk to kids about violence in Charlottesville

PHOTO: People participate in a candlelight vigil after sunset on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, in Washington, D.C., Aug. 13, 2017. PlayMichael Reynolds/EPA
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After the protests and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, kids may have a lot of questions for their parents and it can be challenging to find the explanations.

Meghan Leahy, of Washington, D.C., said she had a conversation with her 10-year-old daughter this week while driving to the beach.

“It was just she and my husband and I in the car and I asked her if she’d heard what was going on,” said Leahy, who is also a parenting coach and a columnist for The Washington Post. “She said she’d heard a little bit.”

“We had a conversation about people’s rights and what a president is to do and about what it means for black people we know,” Leahy said about Saturday’s violence that started with white nationalist groups protesting the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

Leahy’s approach -- asking her child questions to start the conversation -- is what experts recommended after events like Charlottesville, where violence unfolds and brings topics like race and hate to the forefront.

“If we don’t start the conversation kids sometimes get the idea that, 'This must be so scary,' or, 'My parents don’t know what is happening so I don’t want to bring it up,'" said Robin Gurwitch, psychologist at Duke University Medical Center. "Reassure them that they are safe, we are going to take care of them and sometimes we have to have these difficult conversations."

Gurwitch called the events in Charlottesville a "seminal moment" for parents to engage their kids in a conversation.

“This a time for parents to think, ‘What is the message we want our children to have? What are the values?’” she said. “Research tells us hate and prejudice are not what children are born with.”

Gurwitch said it's a time to reflect on how children learn.

“We teach hate," she said, "This is a moment of, 'What do we want our children to know?'”

Conversations should be tailored to a child's age and developmental level.

"Older children will probably be more up front with their questions," said Lynn Bufka, associate executive director of practice research and policy for the American Psychological Association. "Younger children are more focused on what is immediately around them and what could or could not happen around them."

Teachers may also need to guide children through the issues of race and hate and anger stirred in Charlottesville, as students return to school.

"We’ve had conversations today about age-appropriate ways to address this in classrooms, particularly in the middle grades and at the high school," Jim Henderson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Charlottesville City Schools, told ABC News in a statement. "We want to give students the chance to process the event and think about the community’s steps moving forward."

Here are more tips experts say can help parents and teachers who want to discuss the violence in Charlottesville with kids.

Give historical context

"With older kids you can explain that sometimes our country grows and it is in times of growth when people stood up and said 'No,' like the civil rights movement and women’s rights," Gurwitch said. "Our country moved forward [then] and now this is an opportunity to tell our kids that our country will move forward."

Leahy said she sees talking about the history of what led up to the protest in Charlottesville with her children as a way of combating "hopelessness."

"To try and describe all the complexities of what we’re seeing and replies from politicians, it is not as valuable," she said. "I think the way to combat that hopelessness and sadness is through education and a wide-eyed understanding of what our country has been through."

Be honest

"If kids are anxious and you tell them everything is going to be okay and then they hear you talking or turn on the television and it is not okay," said Bufka. "Figure out a way to be honest with your kids that is developmentally appropriate."

"You can say, 'Mom is a little scared or a little upset,' but follow up with, 'As a mom my job is to ensure that you are safe.'"

For educators, honesty can come in form of creating a safe environment.

"It is really important for the administration and school staff to create a safe [physically and emotionally], positive climate for students," said Marian Fish, coordinator of the graduate program in school psychology at New York's Queens College.

"Statements from the principal/teachers, for example, should convey that while something has happened, as a school/class, we will respect others and be welcoming," she said. "The message should be that we will work together and promote a sense of belonging."

Parents don't have to deliver wisdom

“It is never about saying just the one right thing,” Leahy said. “It’s beginning a conversation and using the news to ask your kids thoughtful questions.”

Leahy said the topic of Charlottesville, for example, is a sometimes daily and sometimes less frequent conversation between herself, her husband and her three children.

“You don’t have to beat it to death and clear your throat and deliver wisdom,” she said. “This is continuous conversation. The news is a place for us to begin to talk about what is happening in our country, what has happened in our country."

Parents do need to be role models

"As you think about your kids and your parenting life, question your own life and how you live and what you’re doing and your own voice in it and challenge yourself slightly because I think that’s what children see and that’s really, really important," Leahy said.

"Any step you can make as a parent towards something out of your comfort zone and towards frank, wide-eyed education for your kids is a step towards changing our country’s future."

Bring patience

"Right now it’s important to remember that kids aren’t just struggling with things like remembering their locker number, but with these world events," Gurwitch said. "Our concentration levels are impacted during stressful times and kids' are too."

"Take an extra breath and extra moment and offer that extra bit of patience and love and understanding to our kids in times that can be stressful," she added.

Role play situations

Gurwitch recommends having ongoing conversations with children about what they would do if they saw other people in trouble or find themselves in a bad situation.

That conversation -- which also includes how to treat others -- can apply to a teenager leaving for college and a preschooler not even aware of Charlottesville.

"To a four-year-old you could say, 'You’re getting ready to go to preschool and I want to talk to you about how to be a good friend and what that means. We’re all different. How can you be a good friend to everybody? If you see other children that maybe other people aren’t treating as a good friend, who do you tell?'" she said.

Pay attention to changes in the child

If children are not engaging in normal activities, struggling with relationships at home or at school or withdrawing, those are all signs that something bigger could be happening with your child, experts say.

"If we're not doing things the way we normally would, that’s a sign the depression or anxiety or whatever we’re dealing with has a hold on us," Bufka said. "That's true for adults and kids."

For children, Bufka suggests keeping an open dialogue and also reaching out to the child's teachers and/or seeking professional help.

Parents need outlets too

"It is important for parents to talk to kids, but also stay in the parent role and find other adults they can talk to and share their own anxieties and worries with," Gurwitch said.

Online resources from the American Psychological Association are there for parents, who should also not be shy about asking for help.

"Parents may also benefit from talking to other families about how they addressed it with their kids," Gurwitch said.