Let's face it, the world is a crazy place. Every day we see reports of terrorism, read negative political commentary on social media and, even though we try to shield our kids from it, we can’t keep the information from sneaking in. Obviously we cannot control these violent events. We can, however, control the ways in which we demonstrate to children that they are safe and secure in their homes without turning a blind eye to reality. Here are my top 4 tips for communicating with your kids during these difficult times:
1. Control Yourself, People! Keep Yourselves Together!
If you want to raise level headed and calm children, lead by example. Mom and dad must be grown-up. Your kids need to see you at your best, most confident self, and not a hysterical mess. It’s proven (and we know from our own experiences) that when parents manage their own anxieties, they are better prepared to listen and support their children. It’s okay to be sad and to tell your child what's going on in your brain. Kids pick up on parents’ emotional temperaments and you are not doing them any favors by pretending you're not affected. If you appear to be OK, they know they will be OK too.
2. Turn Off The TV!
First and foremost: turn off the TV. The news' job is to sensationalize events, especially tragic ones. Your child's brain simply cannot process the gravity of the situations, but you can help them understand it.
3. Be Involved!
Always be involved and present. If a stressful event touches your family or those you know, be extra involved with your kids so you're aware if they're experiencing anxiety or sadness, or having trouble sleeping or concentrating.
4. Know How To Communicate According To The Age of Your Child.
When discussing scary information, it's important to keep in mind your child's age, temperament and maturity. You need to be honest and real about life. We know, and our children are learning, life is not all rainbows and fairy tales; terrible things do happen. Depending on how old your child is and where your child is developmentally and emotionally, you must be careful how you frame your response. Here are some age-appropriate guidelines:
- Children Under 5 - Don’t do it!
Your child is simply too young to process the information no matter how you present it. Don’t talk to your partner in front of your kids about what’s on TV or trending on Twitter. Turn off the TV and unplug when your kids are around.
- Children 6-11 - Do it, but carefully!
Your child’s awareness is growing and it’s imperative that you explain the basic facts about what happened; not TV or social media. Children have short memories so most likely it'll run right out of their minds. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand the more repeated and prolonged exposure to TV and media images the more anxiety this creates. Don’t go into gory detail, but don’t pretend your child isn’t aware that something’s amiss in the world.
- Children 12 and over – Do it together!
Demonstrate that you understand your child knows something happened and that they are safe confiding in you. Start by asking what they've heard and know about the event. Let your child talk and listen – I mean really listen – to them. Let them address their feelings. Think about how you feel after talking through scary situations with someone you trust. You feel safer and more assured, right? By talking about it they'll cope better. If they’re not ready or willing to talk, you must assure them that you’re ready to listen when they are.
Here are some examples of these tactics in practice:
Child: Mommy, I heard a man went to a school with a gun and killed kids.
Mom: Yes, a man did go to a school and hurt people. The school is far away from your school. Your school is safe. Your home is safe. We are safe.
Child: She is upset and crying over the news of a tragic event.
Mom: Shows compassion to her child with love and affection and say, "I understand you are scared and how you're feeling." Moms puts aside her anger and grief to be a supportive parent.
Child: She is afraid to go to an outdoor summer concert because of the terror attack in Manchester, England.
Mom: She reassures her child that there is extra security, and emphases how rare these types of events are. She focuses on how important it is to be resilient and have courage to enjoy life.
Child: She comes to you with questions because she heard something from the news or a friend and is confused.
Mom: She answers her child’s questions directly so there cannot be any confusion or misunderstanding. She doe NOT hypothesize or jump to conclusions and explain that the police are doing everything they can to keep families safe and protected. She stays away from frightening words like murder or killing.
Child: She feels distraught and sad for families affected by violence.
Mom: She gets her child active and focused on a compassion project. For example, planting a tree or flowers, or send a card. She tries to make her child feel like she is doing something to make the world a better place.
With the right communication systems and dynamics in place, your family will be able to deal much better with scary world events. Best of luck! This job is never easy!