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Talking with children in response to violence

above: after Gordon sent out the letter below, Channel 10 reached out and arranged for this interview with school counselor Dr. Olivia Ordoñez


January 31st, 2023

Dear Families, Faculty and Staff,

We are writing to you today in the wake of a particularly brutal series of news items with some resources that you may find useful as you care for your children.

Although we may wish to shield our children from the violent realities of the world, children are perceptive, aware of their surroundings, and soaking up information from all over. With chilling news pouring in from all directions—Memphis, Half Moon Bay, Monterey Park, and Duxbury, to name a few—it is likely that your child has been touched by recent news, perhaps in ways they are unable to articulate.

It is important to provide children with spaces to discuss their questions, concerns, and feelings. Children may feel anger, anxiety, powerlessness, or fear, especially in situations where race or other social identities are central to violence.

You can help your child by providing them with factual, developmentally appropriate information; validating their feelings; openly discussing race, racism, and systemic power; taking their questions seriously; and, depending on the age of your child, helping your child take actions toward change.

Filter information for your child in age-appropriate ways.

Although we cannot always control what information children receive, we can control how we approach the topics with them. Messages can include: 

  • all people deserve to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect
  • change is possible if we understand our positions in our communities and actively choose to work together to create change
  • your child has many adults in their lives—parents, extended family, teachers and friends—who are committed to keeping them safe
  • systems of public safety aren’t always just, but many people are working hard to make them better

Before broaching the topic yourself, consider whether you are ready to have this conversation with your child. Then, speak straightforwardly, calmly, at eye level, and share your thoughts, leaving room for questions and dialogue. If you become emotionally upset while talking, take the opportunity to normalize having and expressing feelings.

Share basic information, rather than media or graphic information about the incidents, and ask your child what they already know or have heard. 

You may also want to ask follow-up questions about how they are feeling and answer any questions they might have.

Your child may have already seen graphic images of violence, especially if they have a cell phone, and they may have questions about them. Viewing graphic images can be traumatizing to all individuals, especially those with brains that are still developing their coping and processing skills. Discourage children from watching violent videos and encourage them to talk with a trusted adult about their reactions and feelings. 

Race matters.

It is developmentally appropriate for children to begin to notice differences between people by race at young ages, and it is important for grown-ups to engage children in thoughtful conversation to interrupt stereotypes and prejudices. By explicitly talking about race, in age and developmentally appropriate ways, we present children with the opportunity to disrupt biases and learn more just ways of being in community with one another.

Dr. Kenya Hameed, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, underscores that racism is historic and ongoing and, as such, “It’s going to take all of us changing the mentality and the mindset to work towards a better future.” 

Expect a wide range of feelings, including what you might perceive as a nonreaction.

Although students may not be feeling much at this particular time, grief affects individuals differently. Express to your child that a variety of feelings are expected, and it’s important to share their feelings, especially as feelings change or become very intense.

Some students may not want to talk about their feelings but may still be feeling upset. Consider offering other outlets for processing feelings, such as drawing, creating, or listening to music. Common Sense Media suggests helping children take action by “finding ways to help those affected by the news. Kids can write postcards to politicians expressing their opinions,” and “families can attend meetings or protests.” 

Some signs to watch out for as you consider whether your child is struggling to process instances of public violence include:  

  • Return of behaviors that your child has not exhibited in some time
  • Changes in sleep habits 
  • Changes in behavior 
  • Increased emotionality 
  • Increased complaints of physical symptoms  

Partner with us.

Last May, in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, Dr. Thomas López wrote to the community to remind us all:

Even in the face of senseless tragedy, Gordon is a place of relentless hope. This is a community that is trying, with all of our wisdom and all of our imagination, to break patterns that have wounded this nation's soul. Our mission is to unleash graduates who know how to create positive change and are committed to doing the work that is necessary to see that change unfold. 

That work will not stop. The sad truth is that people will always need to fight for justice. My promise is that Gordon will always continue to support the helpers and the fighters: the families like yours who have entrusted us with your precious children, the magnificent faculty and staff who come to campus each day guided by their calling and purpose, and the young people in whose eyes we see the change we need to heal our broken world.

Gordon remains bound by a mission that compels us to help build a better, safer, more just world. We welcome your partnership in this work, and invite you to connect with us any time about questions, concerns, ideas and observations you may have.

With gratitude,

Alethea Dunham-Carson, Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning
Olivia Ordoñez, School Counselor