How to talk to your kids about violence

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Dallas shooting Mom shields son _00000213

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Story highlights

  • From Louisiana to Texas, this week has been marked by one tragic shooting after the next
  • Juliette Kayyem: Though you may not be able to shield your kids from the violence, there are steps you can take to ease their nerves.

CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home." She is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The violence that has overwhelmed this nation over the last 48 hours is inexplicable in many ways, and yet familiar in others. Killings by cops, cops being killed: name the city -- Dallas, Baton Rouge or any other -- and then add on a mass shooting in Orlando and international terrorism in Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq.

Juliette Kayyem
And that's just in the last two weeks.
    It hits home. This is our homeland. And while policy debates about immigration, airport security and gun control animate our adult conversations, our children are absorbing all this in ways that we wish they weren't. And the notion of shielding them from this world, from even the last 48 hours, is an impossibility -- because chances are they already know it.
    Though I am a homeland security expert, I also am a mother of three children. Professionally, I have lived a life dealing with mayhem, destruction and violence. But I'll admit, even if you may not, that late Thursday night as I was watching television, all I could think was: What do I say to the kids tomorrow morning?
    Admittedly, there is no checklist or universal lesson that applies to all our children, all of the time. Younger children may not be ready for such serious conversations, though I tend to think that we infantilize them far too long and should consider instead their maturity levels. Children in urban environments will feel differently than those in rural ones.
    African-American families will have to address their relationship with police officers in a manner white families will not. But I do believe that supporting our children should be a universal objective, and there are some general principles that can be applied in the wake of this week's tragedies.
    Bell: Don't want my child to be surprised if I get killed
    Bell: Don't want my child to be surprised if I get killed

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      Bell: Don't want my child to be surprised if I get killed

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    Violence is not abstract, and neither is your children's anxiety: Take all of this seriously, as your kids likely are. You can be apolitical or have CNN on all the time, but your kids are viewing images and watching videos of current events on social media, through their smart phones and elsewhere. This morning I tried to tune out the news by putting on a top-40 radio station, and there was no music -- just a discussion of the violence we have all seen. And though these events may have happened far away, in communities your kids are not familiar with, they still feel real when streaming into their bedrooms.
    Don't ignore the conversation, but don't force it: In these summer months, kids' schedules may be more fluid than during the school year. If you are sitting at home, waiting for them to walk in, and say, "What do you think of Dallas?", your kids are likely to view it as phony and forced. Engage them naturally and don't lead the conversation. Questions like, "How are you feeling about what is going on?" or "Are your friends talking about Alton Sterling or Philando Castile?" will be much more successful. Let them set the pace and tone.
    Admit there are no easy solutions: In other words, don't lie. Our tendency to have kids feel as if they are completely safe and secure is natural, but they know that is false. I tend to talk in terms of "minimizing risk" so that children can understand that you can't offer a world of unicorns and fairy tales, but that there are steps they can take to protect themselves from harm.
    Be the boss: There are moments when we want to throw a pillow at the TV and say, "The world is going to hell in a hand basket." We all feel it sometimes, but when we do it, we know that our day will eventually move forward. Time is different for our children; the problems of today feel like they will be the problems of forever. For those of us who grew up in fear of nuclear Armageddon (and did school trainings in anticipation of it), it helps to give perspective to our children. The greatest sense of well-being for children is their sense of well-being of their parents. So, act your age.
    Do something/anything: Talking about feelings can only go so far. Prepare an emergency kit for your home or plan emergency protocols in the event of a crisis so your kids know you are owning their security efforts. Make sure your kids understand active-shooter protocols (they are likely already getting them from school, so don't feel like this is too much for them to handle): run if you can, hide if you must and engage the situation only as a last resort. For families in communities that are more fearful of police, especially for African-American children, there is no perfect solution -- as they know that complying with police demands can still lead to violence. But most police officers are committed to community engagement and outreach, so remind your children of that fact, as well as how to have safer interactions with police.
    And then, tune out: CNN will not like me for saying this, but turn it off. Go for a walk. Take that iPhone away. Too much of anything is never good for children, and that includes their access to a world we wish they were not inheriting.
    But this is the world our children live in. This is their homeland, too.