|Tell your kids you don't understand, either.|
There are some VITAL points being left out of EVERY article I've read about "how to talk to kids about the school shootings in Connecticut." Yes, my heart is heavy; yes, it's terrible, and yes, many of us are having knee jerk reactions about gun control, religion in schools, and so on.
But, as a widow and parent of a sensitive, resilient 8 year old, this is in my wheel house, it affects you TODAY, and it's important. So I'm just going to write about those bits that have NOT shown up in the many articles shared by my more than 2000 FB friends, on my neighborhood, PTA, official school, and church list servs.
In general, these tips will help you with elementary school age kids but they may be useful for your own emotional health or with talking to older kids or even adults. Every child is different -- listen to your instinct and your experiences about your own individual child and do what works with your own parenting style. If you recognize something negative about your parenting style from what I say... well, crises can teach us things, and today is a new day.
So listen up.
- Make your words honest and age appropriate. DO NOT LIE to your kids and do not try to conceal what happened. You WILL learn a lot if you listen well to their questions FIRST and this in some way works best if you talk less, and if you don't start the topic. You do NOT need to give them more details than they ask for. Many articles have been saying, "don't bring it up" and I hear a lot of parental discomfort with this point. Well, this does depend on the context. You may feel the need to control the story -- and at some ages, in some school situations, this may make sense. I find if I keep in mind that phrase -- honest and age appropriate -- it helps A LOT.
- Be honest about your own feelings. OK, this is mentioned in SOME of the articles but it's too important for ANYONE to skip -- and it is the one, that, in my experience, parents are most likely to be uncomfortable with. One of our most important tasks as parents is to demonstrate to kids that feelings -- sadness, anger, fear, helplessness -- can be overwhelming. It is not their fault, it's not only them, and it's part of being human. As they grow, they will learn (from you!) how to manage this sense of overwhelm... which is VERY scary, especially at younger ages. DO CRY in front of your kids. If they don't like it... help them understand it's natural and you can't control it (or maybe, you might say, "it's dangerous to cry while driving. Mommy's going to pull over for a minute." It is also up to you to model for them how to handle this intensity.
- Share also HOW YOU DEAL with intense feelings. Do you hit, clam up, try to shove it down? Your kids can tell EXACTLY what you are doing. My daughter notices from tiny movements of my eyes or lips when my thoughts or emotions have shifted. Don't think you'll be successful at hiding your feelings from your child. If you're in a bad mood, you can say so. If you're sorry you reacted a certain way, say so. DON'T apologize for your feelings or for healthy manifestations of those feelings. Play loud music, go for a walk, have a comforting snack. Drink water to remind yourself to take care of yourself. Breathe to calm down. These are sophisticated tools peddled by gurus, but you know them. SHARE your good ways of coping with your child. (If alcohol is part of your coping, you probably want to hide that, okay?)
- Depending on your child's age, share your uncertainty. An important part of your message is that you, as parent, are not able to control what happens outside in the world but you will always listen and you will always (poof!) be honest. Caveat: this is less useful for younger age kids who may feel scared. You should reassure them that they are safe and that you and everyone (school staff, police, local and national government) is doing everything they can to keep kids safe -- and that these terrible things do not happen very often. A side effect of providing this reassurance is that it may remind you, too, of a larger perspective and your real safety.
If your child asks a question you can't answer, say "I don't know" or "I wish I understood, too" or share something from your faith tradition. DO NOT TRY TO CONTROL THE STORY and do NOT force your point of view (religious, political, whatever) on your kids. This makes you look "shut down" to them when you MOST want to be open to their questions.
- Give kids time to process. Understand that kids learn things AS THEY GROW. We often explain children's grief -- and many other topics in emotional and cognitive development -- as "like peeling an onion." Children's feelings and thoughts unfold in layers. You may have a concise and terrific talk with your kids and they don't ask questions. You may be disappointed or push them. Let them lead you -- they may just want to go off and play. They will ask more questions later IF you make it clear that you are listening, not terrified of the topic, not reactive, do not have an agenda, and that you are fine with them being "slow to understand." (They're not slow -- but parents are often impatient). Big topics tend to unravel slowly, to be understood over time. New contexts, other developments in their lives, and the cognitive growth that is the main quality of childhood, will mean that they ask you similar questions over time (take each one seriously... they are actually asking something different). It will mean that a question pops up when you least expect it or when some rigid family member is visiting. You can handle it by being....
- I'll say it again: HONEST AND AGE APPROPRIATE. Keep this in mind, because every few months, as your kids grow and learn, and the new questions come up, the meaning of "honest" and of "age appropriate" will change, too.
- Respect your own feelings and understand that your experience of this may be completely different from your kids' experience. It's okay for you to take care of yourself, too. Get comfortable with the fact that you can't control the world and that our own feelings can sometimes feel like "too much." Your comfort level will enable your children to "hear" that you are open to questions -- even though we know you don't want to handle this terrible topic AGAIN. Dealing with "shit that happens" (in all forms) is part of parenting and part of our world and you can handle it.
I learned this stuff from being a widow and parenting my grieving child. BUT, the more I learned... the more it was really about my own spectrum of emotions and accepting responsibility for parenting in an uncertain world. Parenting a child through this kind of crisis is not all about "grief" -- a topic that too many people find intimidating or frightening. Most of these tips are really about life. When you really think about it, there is very little in our kids' lives we can control. But we CAN help them through it, and we can learn from them.
I know these tips are not concise. I know there is a lot of intermingling and melding and overlap between them. I wrote this quickly and when have I ever done that?
And it's not complete. I'm assuming you've already read at least 6 articles. I still hope it is helpful.