Talking to your children after this week's tragedy

In the midst of a tragedy in our backyard, we are all affected.  Jewish, Christian…it doesn’t matter.  All of our hearts ache for the victims and our insides churn thinking that there could be such hatred in the world.  And many of us feel a bit guilty as we whisper a “Thank You” to God that it wasn’t us or our own children.  My children were across the street at Sunday School at our Temple.  My mind hasn’t been able to stop thinking about what could have happened…

As a parent, I was forced to keep going even though I wanted to watch the TV…or just sit and cry because I continue to wonder how bad things can happen in a world that I believe is supposed to be good, or at least a world that I want to be viewed as good in the eyes of my innocent children. But activities still needed to be attended, lunches packed, homework completed.  We were forced to go on with our lives.  There wasn’t time for me to sit and process the tragedy in the way I needed to. 

I knew that I was going to have to talk with at least my older son (8 years old), for now there will be a police presence every time we attend our Temple.  I felt I owed him the truth.  As I began to tell him about what had happened, his response was such a blessing.  He said in a matter of fact tone, “Well, at least there are great policemen to keep us safe”.  Sigh.  You are so right, son!  And then we focused on that and that only.

I know that many of us are struggling right now (as we sadly have with other past tragedies) about what to say to our children.  Should we tell them?  Do we lie?  How much do we say?  I offer some advice simply as a guide.  I feel that every parent has to make their own decision in how much to tell and what to say based on their own beliefs and parenting style.  My advice is guided by my professional experience as well as my personal experience.

-       I think that young children may not need to be told. Most children that are not in elementary school can be easily sheltered by us from the TV and from others that are talking about it.  That being said, keep the TV off around your child!  Even small children can often understand more than we give them credit for.  Wait to discuss the event until after your child is in bed.  And let older children know if you are not telling their younger sibling.  Ask them to talk to you privately if they have questions.

For School Aged Children:

-    Know that your child will likely hear about it somehow, most likely from friends.  So even though you may not want to talk about it to shelter your child, think about this…would you rather be the one to tell your child in the way you think is appropriate for him/her or would you rather someone else’s child on the playground?

-       Plan ahead.  Don’t just wing it.  Discuss with your spouse what you both would like to say and stick to the plan when you talk with your child

-       Remember that LESS IS MORE.  Adults have a tendency to say way too many words to our children.  Start with a simple statement or two and STOP.  Really.  Just keep your words simple and few

-       After stating the facts in whatever way you deem appropriate for your child, focus on SAFETY.  Talk about the people that are out there to keep us safe and to make sure that people are protected.  Kids will really pick up on this piece and will tend to focus on that in a conversation

-       Be mindful that your child’s reaction may not come until later, often at a time no one would suspect.  It will take time for your child to process the information so they may come back with questions or worries.  Don’t panic.  It’s perfectly okay as a parent to not have all the answers.  Most kids just need a chance to vent their feelings and know that you are there for them and will keep them safe

-    Know that if you have multiple children, they may each process the event differently.  One child may not seem as affected, whereas your other child may become upset or fearful.  If you think this might be the case, choose to have separate conversations with each child so that you can approach it in the way that is most appropriate for that child.  In other words, your strategy in how to talk to your children may be different for each child, especially if they are far apart in age.

-       You know your child best.  Think about their maturity level (not age) and personality as you are deciding how much to tell them.  An anxious child may not handle the information as well as a child that is not anxious.  If your child becomes fearful, it’s okay to make adaptions for them. Maybe they want a nightlight suddenly.  Or maybe they are having a hard time falling asleep and want you to lay with them.  Just know that they are processing the event and looking for reassurance of safety.  

-       Have some ideas in mind to “do good” in the world with your child.  Maybe plan a day to volunteer as a family to pay tribute to the victims.  Make cards to send to the victims’ church as a sign of support.  Plant flowers in honor of the victims.  Get creative.  There are a million ways to show support.

-       If you feel that worry or fear has gone beyond what is expected, talk to a school counselor or call me.  Your child might need a safe place to process what has happened.  The sooner and more efficiently you deal with it, the faster your child can heal and remember the good in the world.

A friend of mine stated it so well:

I know from the outpouring of love from the community for the victims, that there is far more good than evil in this world. Peace and love to all, keep sharing it and spreading it.”