Yesterday, in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Las Vegas, my social media feed was consumed with concerned parents asking how to talk to their children about tragedies. This is never an easy subject to discuss with our children. It is natural to want to protect and shelter them from the darkness in the world.
The rise of technology, 24/7 news channels, the internet and children’s increasing access to screens makes sheltering them nearly impossible. So what’s a parent to do?
Step 1 – Check in with yourself
As difficult as this may sound, the very first step I recommend to parents is to check in with themselves. A tragedy such as this can elicit strong feelings in us of grief, sadness and anger. Our children will likely have their own strong feelings (if they find out about it). Therefore it is imperative that we not dump our emotions onto them – they have enough of their own to manage. So before anything, we must check in with ourselves. What am I feeling right now? Where am I feeling it? In my heart? My throat? My stomach?
It is healthy to allow our emotions – to welcome them in fact. We run into problems when we try to stuff them down and pretend they are not there. So just allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling, and try to allow the emotions to move through you. That will allow them to leave you more easily so that you can return to a grounded, centered place.
Step 2 – Move away from fear
The second step is to move away from fear. When tragedies like this occur, it can be a natural reaction to want to stop going to concerts, or even to Las Vegas. It helps no one if we allow these sorts of things to prevent us from living our lives or doing something we love. And when we are in fear, it is very unlikely that we will help our children navigate their feelings in the best way possible. Fear makes us want to clench up, to run, to hide, to lash out (fight or flight).
Fear clouds our judgment and our ability to take the entire picture into our vision and to have clarity. One mom told me yesterday that I was able to help her to shift from fear and come instead from love before she spoke to her children. So before you even think about talking to your children, attempt steps 1 and 2 first.
Step 3 – Talk to your child, but how?
Once you are not in the vice grip of fear, only then should you broach the subject with your children. What you say and how you say it depends very much on your individual child.
A young child
The tragedy at Sandy Hook happened when my youngest was in kindergarten. I was in contact with the teacher to see if it came up at school. It hadn’t. I decided not to mention it. That was five years ago, and media moves faster now, so the odds are slightly higher that a kindergartener may hear about things like this now. If I had a child that age now, I may just ask if there was any “big news” at school. If they say no, I might leave it at that.
A slightly older child
At that time, I told my 2nd-grader that a bad person went to a school and did a bad thing and that people were very sad about it. Period. She accepted my vague information and didn’t ask further questions. Before I told her though, I took into consideration the likelihood that I thought other children would find out as well as her developmental/emotional level. She is quite a sensitive child so I had to be extremely careful navigating that with her. I managed to “tell” her what happened without adding any additional emotional baggage onto her. I did it in a way that she could feel sad for a moment, and go on about her evening.
An upper elementary child
My oldest was in 5th grade at that time, and that evening, I asked him if he had heard anything at school that day. He knew explicit details of what happened from other kids at school. I allowed him to share with me what he heard and I clarified the details of what he heard that was inaccurate. Now my kids are in 5th, 7th and 10th. I did the same with each of them last night.
My now 5th grader had not heard anything. Knowing that he is pretty resilient and he would likely hear about it in school I decided to tell him. I told him very basic information – a very sick man killed and injured a lot of people at a gathering in Las Vegas. He was surprised and said it was sad to hear about this news, and then he said he was tired and really wanted to go to sleep. He did not want to ask any more questions or talk about it any further.
A middle school child
My then 2nd grade daughter is now in 7th grade. Not surprisingly, she heard about Las Vegas before I had the chance to talk to her last night. I was planning to talk to her at bedtime, but she came to me first, saying she was feeling anxiety about something. When I asked her what it was, she said the shooting in Las Vegas. Fortunately, we were driving to pick her younger brother up from soccer, so it was a perfect opportunity to talk.
She expressed natural sadness and fear and asked if I thought something like that could happen in our town. I told her it was possible, but unlikely (our town is small and we do not host music festivals). I told her about Mr. Rogers’ mother’s wise advice to find the helpers in tragedies. Still, she expressed fear. Her fear was mostly centered around me. She had confused Las Vegas with Los Angeles (where I just returned from three weeks ago). She was uncomfortable thinking that I had been where this shooting occurred. I clarified that I was in Los Angeles, not Las Vegas.
Soothing children’s fears
She proceeded to tell me (again) that she doesn’t like when I travel without her because she “can’t keep me safe.” I immediately reminded her that it is not her responsibility to keep me safe, and that I did not want her to take on that burden. If anything, it is my responsibility to help keep her safe. I reminded her that I am as careful when I travel as she sees me being when I am home. I told her someone I knew said she had no intentions of allowing this tragedy to stop her from living her life and doing the things she wanted to do. And that we should not allow that to happen either.
The value of movement and fresh air
When we arrived at soccer, I decided to allow them to play at the playground before we drove home. My daughter had a chance to express her fears to me and to try to process her emotions. The playground was a golden opportunity for her to get fresh air and movement and clear her mind of this heavy subject matter.
She needed that as much as we all need it. That carefree fun at the park allowed her to come home, finish her homework and snuggle comfortably into her bed.
In times like this, get yourself to a grounded place (from love not fear) before you talk with your children. Then, find out what they know before you offer them details. When you do offer them details, do it mindfully with knowledge of where they are developmentally and emotionally.
And as always, if you would like more assistance with this or any parenting challenges, feel free to contact me.