Q&A: Talking to your children about tragedy

Due to the recent events in Newtown, Conn., I decided to address these questions that I received from a parent. I don’t presume to be able to “answer” them, but I will give my thoughts on helping ourselves and our children get through horrible situations that are out of our control.

Q. Bonnie, thank you for being a helper. I must admit that I am a little scared of the possibility of this [the Newtown school shooting] occurring in our town. The fear is real but what should a parent do? What if we think our child will be fine and off to school they go and an hour later news hits us like a baseball bat that an event like Columbine or Newtown just occurred in our safe little town? And is it my child or my friend’s child that is killed? It’s not supposed to happen in our town. But what if it did? What do we do to prepare as you suggest? Will it harm our kids’ innocence and sense of safety? Even if they are prepared will it truly help them feel safe? I’m just throwing out questions and fears, but what is a scared mom to do?

A. First, I think that every parent’s fear is indeed real and appropriate. The Newtown tragedy skipped over very few Americans and hit many all over the world. Perhaps the busyness and maybe some joy around the holidays distracted many, but now that holiday time is over, fears may again rise to the surface. Most importantly, it’s not what we say to our kids, but how we get ourselves to a place where we can transmit confidence to our children.

We must remind ourselves that even though more are happening, mass shootings are very, very rare. Our children are no less safe today than they were two weeks ago. Worrying that it could happen in their safe little town would have been no help to Sandy Hook parents. Our worry does not help.

It is important to have another adult to share your fears with — one who does not trivialize them. The same goes for our children’s fears. Do a self-evaluation of your fear. If fear arises when your mind travels to Newtown, you are on common ground with other parents. If your fear prevents your mind from traveling anywhere but Newtown, then it may be important to seek professional help. When our fears drive us, they leak out and affect our children. Best intentions of protecting children from harm can do just the opposite when we are unduly anxious. So tackle your own fears.

Keep in mind that what you need is not necessarily what your children need. We all process fear differently. Some children want to talk a great deal and have plans laid out for what to do if something bad happens to them. Others don’t want to talk at all. Follow their lead rather than following your own agenda about how to squelch fear.

Boundaries are critically important when we are addressing difficult emotions in children. You are more helpful when you are not in their fear or pain with them. In other words, if they express difficult emotion, know that pain is theirs and not your job to take away. When you can draw this boundary, you can help your child with his emotion, and he does not have yours to deal with or feel responsible for. If you feel responsible for your child’s upset, then you will do everything you can to take it away. If it doesn’t go away, it becomes your fault. If you dread that, you may dismiss important emotions that need your support-another powerful reason for dealing with your own emotions first so you can hear your child’s without becoming enmeshed.

Young children

If your children ask questions, answer them honestly but without going into further details than they bring up. If they don’t ask questions, don’t bring it up. If you are pretty sure they will hear about it at school, give them the bare facts about a very sick man who shot some students in a school. Assure them that the man is dead and cannot harm anyone else. If they don’t want to talk further, stop talking.

Do watch for changes in behavior. Often children show their fears in very indirect ways and may need to play out some aggression. Aggressive acting out is a coping mechanism to deal with anxiety. Instead of trying to stop the aggression, give it appropriate outlets. Punching pillows, in-house trampolines, squishing Play-Doh or clay, drawing/scribbling pictures of how they feel and tearing into tiny pieces, jumping on an allowed piece of furniture, etc. They can release pent up feelings this way without verbally processing them.

Older children

Talk with older kids (defined by how mature you know your child to be) about bad things happening as much as they will tolerate. Again, take care of yourself first so that you can talk objectively. No problem showing emotion for the children who were killed (or whatever the situation), you just don’t want to project your worry for your child onto him. Show your strong empathy for victims... and also show your confidence in your child’s life situation and your ability to take care of him.

Many children feel better when you play “What if...” games with them. “What if your ice cream dropped out of the cone onto the sidewalk?” “What if you were alone in the house and someone came to the door?” “What if a stranger said he was going to take you to your mother?” These are good problem solving scenarios and help children feel empowered in tough situations. If you ask them as problem solvers, you can be objective. If you are seriously worried they might happen, you might transfer that worry onto your children.

If the conversation is about Newtown, don’t be afraid to ask, “What if someone were to come into your school?” It doesn’t mean there are answers, but it does raise important concerns and possibilities for action that might not otherwise get thought about.

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in the December edition of the Connective Parenting newsletter.

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