How do you explain the impossible to children? How do you instill confidence and calm when children are overwrought by fear? Or when you are?
It can be a big, bad, scary world out there – for us, as well as our kids. As parents, we walk a fine line. We want to protect our kids, and yet we know it’s our job to prepare them to handle the challenges that await them in life.
Nothing brings this home more than shocking current events like school shootings. They throw all of us off course, kids and adults alike. Despite the fact that we know terrible things can happen in the world, we’re never prepared when it starts feeling too close to home … or to school.
As parents, we can’t just rely on school counselors and special assemblies to teach our kids to make sense of the incomprehensible. We want to provide our kids with opportunities to get support from us and allow them to process complicated thoughts and feelings in their own time frame. And we want to process our own fears and concerns out of the watchful eyes of our kids.
So here is the tip list I’ve tried to avoid writing for years, somehow hoping each school shooting would be the last. I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, anymore – none of us can. Certainly, there is much more that counselors and therapists have to offer this discussion, but here are the thoughts of this Coach Mom:
For Parents of Kids of ANY AGE:
- Your child needs you to keep your head out of the sand on this one. Don’t pretend nothing’s happened. Respond to their questions and concerns directly, and matter-of-factly.
- If you feel put on the spot by a child’s comment or question, it’s okay to say that you want to think about how to respond, and set up some time to talk later. But be sure to come back to it!
- Manage how you communicate your own anxiety around the issue. Kids smell fear and absorb your emotions, even when you think you’re masking them. Beware of your body language, your tone, your reactivity. Self-management is difficult when we’re feeling threatened, so if you need a break to stay level-headed, then take it. Your kids want you to be a rock for them, and you want to be using your thinking brain, not your primitive brain.
- While it’s perfectly normal and appropriate to feel strongly around these kinds of crises, try to keep the focus on concern for others. Avoid sounding like you’re fearful for your child’s safety. Your child wants to trust your confidence in the safety of his environment.
- Deal with your own fears around your children being harmed, or potentially harming others. Don’t wait to reach out for help if you have concerns. Better to have your fears assuaged than let constant worry dampen your relationships.
- Keep things in perspective, and try not to become alarmist. The sad truth is that you are much more likely to have to explain a teenage suicide to your child than respond to a rogue gunman in your school.
For Parents of Younger Kids
Roughly 9 and under, but use your judgment – you know best:
- If you can avoid talking about unsettling public (or private) events in front of your kids, that’s best. They don’t need to feed on the regular diet of doom and gloom that dominates the nightly news.
- If they hear something that makes them uncomfortable (or if they bring it up to you), ask them what they know about it so that you’re not offering more detail than they already know.
- If it feels important to do so, correct any misunderstandings or misinformation matter-of-factly. Be aware, though, that it may be best to let certain misunderstandings stand. Your child may have made sense of things in a way that works for her, and corrections may cause more harm than good.
- Keep conversations general, and try not to get specific images into their heads that they’ll either distort with their imagination, or have a hard time getting out of their heads.
- Sometimes, your kids may have heard something upsetting that you’re not even aware that they know. If you suspect that at all, ask open-ended questions like, “you seem lost in thought – what’s on your mind?” or “did you talk about anything different at school today?” You can even say, “you seem upset about something – do you want to talk about it?”
- Don’t ignore unusual behaviors, like new fears or more need to control. Identify anything that might be concerning, and consider talking to a therapist if the behavior persists.
For Parents of Older Kids
Roughly age 10 and above, but use your judgment – you know best:
- Read the list above for Parents of Younger Kids – some of it still applies to all ages, for sure!
- Be Clear, and Specific. Find out what your kids know, and what questions they still have.
- If it feels appropriate, talk to your children about their concerns about how they might handle a similar situation. Acknowledge their fears and ideas. Validate whether they think they’d want to run away, or be a hero, or anything in between.
- Talk about the reality of how incredibly rare these kinds of events really are. If they’re math kids, do some calculations together to figure out how many schools there are, and how little chance there is of this happening in their community. De-mystify it with whatever “language” works for your child.
- Lighten the seriousness of the conversation with a little humor, if appropriate. You can tell them that you’re much more concerned that they’ll get hit by a bus, so remind them to look both ways before crossing the street!
- Kids walk a fine line between not wanting to “tattle,” and being concerned when a peer is in emotional trouble. For teenagers, talk about how to handle it when they have concerns about their peers. (In my family, for example, my teens know that we highly regard confidentiality, but it goes out the window if life or health is in danger. My kids actually find comfort in that.)
Finally, whether it’s a school shooting or any other violent crime, show some compassion for the person who is so sick that they’ve committed this heinous crime. Do not demonize them to the point that you de-humanize them. This is hard to do! But it is an important lesson for your kid to learn that people who struggle with serious problems need to ask for help before things escalate out of control.
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