Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What do we tell the children? How to talk about violence and other hard topics with your kids

I remember clearly the day the world changed, I was working, it was a beautiful, clear day. And the sky fell.  I was at work in a group home, and all of us were glued to the television set, watching the events unfold. We even saw the second tower fall.  At some point during the day, I became aware that as we were watching the news, so would our clients be watching when they returned from work. And very soon, the televisions were turned off.

On that sunny September day, Christina Green was born.  Her life began on a beautiful day in September. Began on a day fraught with tragedy.  On Saturday, another tragedy struck, and ended her life.  Senseless, brutal, and heartbreaking.  She was just 9 years old. In addition, 5 others lost their lives, and 14 were more wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D) from Arizona, leaving many of us to wonder, why?

When shots rang out in the Safeway parking lot on Saturday morning in Tucson, Arizona, it was a stark reminder of how fragile life is, of how we sometimes feel helpless to keep our children safe, and left us with more questions than answers - how could this happen, why would Jared Lee Loughner shoot people he doesn't even know, and could this tragedy have been prevented?

Raising children is one of the most difficult, but most rewarding challenges you will ever have. Events like those Saturday don't make our jobs any easier for us.   In today's world, this awesome responsibility can be full of confusing, and often tragic lessons. Further, when we hear that one of the victims is a child, it leaves us with a sinking feeling. For our own children, such events can often leave them feeling even more frightened and confused, and also leaves them with questions. As parents, we wonder what to say, how much to tell them, and what words to use. It's a delicate balance between giving accurate and truthful information, and refraining from scaring or alarming children. You must constantly monitor your child's emotional reaction and ensure that you provide feelings of safety.

This blog is not intended to diagnose Jared Lee Loughner or to speculate on the politics or mental health issues that fueled his anger, and triggered this shooting spree. It is intended to give parents concrete information to help them, and their children, cope with the aftermath of such violence.

Children often ask tough questions, and as children see stories on television and hear about violence, terrorism, natural disasters, etc., these are the most difficult to address as parents. After all, how do you explain Jihad to your 5 year old or assassination attempts to your third grader?  Added to this dilemma is the often graphic and detailed nature of the news reports, and images that are seen on television. 

When discussing acts of violence it is crucial to keep several basic guidelines in mind:

  • First and foremost, open the lines of communication with your child early on, so that they feel comfortable coming to you when they have questions;
  • Know what your child is seeing on TV, hearing on the radio, and reading in the newspaper and online. Remember that just because your child does not watch CNN or Fox News, doesn't mean they are not exposed. The home pages of Yahoo and other popular sites have headlines displayed prominently.
  • Remember that watching the news is an enticing as sneaking an R rated movie. It has it all, sex, violence, action, and drama that the latest box office hit is advertising. You can decide what your child is viewing, and this includes the news they see.
  • Watch the news (and other shows) WITH your kids. This way you will know exactly when they are seeing, and will be readily available to answer questions or calm their fears.
  • Be sure that you talk with them about what you, and they, see and hear.  This will also help the lines of communication stay open. Be sure that your kids know they can come back later and ask if they have questions.
  • Since parents are the ones to teach values and morals, it's ok to let them see how you feel about it. Dont' be overly emotional, but it's ok to share feelings such as "I feel very sad or angry that someone hurt a child".
  • Listen! (nuff said?)
  • And then listen some more. It's important for kids to have a platform to share their feelings and thoughts about how they feel. Don't interrupt them or try to cut them off to avoid uncomfortable questions or discussions. It's part of the job.
  • Provide reassurance to your child about their safety. Say things such as "I know this is scary, but I will do everything I can to make sure you are safe".
  • Teach kids to be safe without being alarmist. Teaching them basic skills such as locking doors, not talking to strangers, not giving out personal information online and avoiding dangerous situations can go a long way to help them feel like an active participant in their safety.
  • Turn off and tune out.  Go outside and play, stay in and watch Shrek, or play a family game.  I know that in the days following 9-11, I found the need to turn off the television, go for a walk and listen to my favorite music. While I felt somewhat guilty about doing so (after all, the victims, first responders and families couldn't tune out), it is so important to realize that while we always remember, and always stay alert to the world, we must go on.
  • Ask for help. If you or your child is having a difficult time handing the aftermath of a tragedy, please remember that HELP is available. 


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