From the American Psychological Association:
As a parent, you may be struggling with how to talk with your children about a shooting rampage. It is important to remember that children look to their parents to make them feel safe. This is true no matter what age your children are, be they toddlers, adolescents, or even young adults.
Consider the following tips for helping your children manage their distress.
Talk with your child. Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are there listening to them.
- Find times when they are most likely to talk: such as when riding in the car, before dinner, or at bedtime.
- Start the conversation; let them know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the information they are getting.
- Listen to their thoughts and point of view; don’t interrupt–allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.
- Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs; acknowledge that it is okay to disagree.
- Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Give them a hug.
Keep home a safe place. Children, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that your children may come home seeking the safe feeling they have being there. Help make it a place where your children find the solitude or comfort they need. Plan a night where everyone participates in a favorite family activity.
Watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety. After a traumatic event, it is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your children’s behaviors may change because of their response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, or changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in a few months. Encourage your children to put their feelings into words by talking about them or journaling. Some children may find it helpful to express their feelings through art.
Take “news breaks”. Your children may want to keep informed by gathering information about the event from the internet, television, or newspapers. It is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news because constant exposure may actually heighten their anxiety and fears. Also, scheduling some breaks for yourself is important; allow yourself time to engage in activities you enjoy.
Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Be a model for your children on how to manage traumatic events. Keep regular schedules for activities such as family meals and exercise to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.
These tips and strategies can help you guide your children through the current crisis. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, you may want to consider talking to someone who could help. A licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward. It is important to get professional help if you feel like you are unable to function or perform basic activities of daily living.
Thanks to psychologists Ronald S. Palomares, PhD, and Lynn F. Bufka, PhD. who assisted us with this article.
Updated April 2011
“First, find out what they have heard.” That’s the first line of Benedict Carey’s article on how to talk to your children about the mass shooting that took place Friday at an elementary school in Connecticut. I received a similar e-mail from my own children’s school, encouraging parents consider our individual children and their needs as we try to find words. How to talk to our kids is paramount, but I found myself focused on a different side of the question: how not to.
Part of me wants to talk to my children. I want to tell them what happened, and then drill them wildly on how to protect themselves. I want to promise them that it could never happen here, and at the same time reassure myself.
“First, find out what they have heard” is advice that puts the focus where it needs to be: on the child, not on the parent. Many of us think our children will be thinking and worrying about what happened in Newtown because we can’t avoid thinking about it ourselves. But what if the answer is that they know very little? What if the child in front of you doesn’t appear worried at all? Do we have to “talk to our children” about every tragedy? As awash in information as adults are, many children, especially younger ones, simply aren’t in that position. It may be difficult, but also unnecessary, to protect them from hearing about a news event at all. And a child whose television comes from Disney and whose primary use of a mobile device involves throwing birds at pigs may not be inundated with information in the ways we fear.
“Most kids are pretty self-centered,” Nancy Rappaport, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of school-based programs for the Cambridge Health Alliance, said. “Some may be more vulnerable to these kinds of fears, but many may just say, ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ and move on.” This is a reaction that’s hard to understand for an adult, but fine, Dr. Rappaport said, for children whose focus is still naturally on themselves.
So as a parent, you’re left with the question not just of how to talk to your child about tragedy, but of whether you’re talking to your child for your child — or for yourself. There’s the question of what to say, but also when, and if, you should say it. “If you’re feeling panicked, and like there’s no place safe in the world, then that’s a good time to step back and get those thoughts in order,” Dr. Rappaport suggested. “But if we try to wait until we’ve fully come to terms with something like this, then we’ll never be able to talk. In fact, we’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
She brought up a strategy that’s commonly used for anxiety in children: “worried thought, brave thought.” “We teach kids to counter a worried thought with a brave thought,” she said, and to “know that although the worried thought may come back, the brave thoughts are always there as well.” A worried thought might be “A shooter will come to my children’s school and there is nothing I can do about it,” with the brave counter “School shootings are still rare, and countless people are working to make them rarer still.”
If you’re going to talk to your children, start with a brave thought, she said. If the worried thoughts return while you’re talking, acknowledge them — out loud, with your child. It’s all right to show that you, too, worry. But then bring a brave thought back again. If you sense anxiety in your child, you could even share the same strategy. And remember that you don’t have to get it right in one single talk. In fact, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that “talking to” your children isn’t the goal. It’s talking with your children that will matter in the long run.
More immediately, though, I keep coming back to the question of whether this a conversation that you have to have at all. Do you have to tell a small child what’s happened, on the theory that her equally small classmates may be chattering about it on Monday, or might you just be creating an anxiety that never existed to begin with — making yours the child who begins the chattering? I don’t know. My own children had a half day on Friday, and came home just as this news began to appear. Judicious management of the car radio and any newspapers means it really was up to me to decide whether and what to tell them before Monday. (They’re 11, 8, 7 and 6, only watch children’s networks on television and are completely uninterested in social media.)
Ultimately, I told them, fairly simply. We did talk about what you’d do, a little bit, if you wanted to get away from “someone bad.” And then we left it. (I had a slightly more nuanced discussion with my oldest later, but because he seemed truly unconcerned, I let it go for now.) I suspect they won’t be thinking about it at all when they go to school on Monday morning, and I hope that if their classmates bring it up, my kids will know enough to manage any fears.
But I’ll be thinking about it, and so, if you’re a parent, will you. I don’t know how sending all of our children back to school this week can be done without those “worried thoughts” rushing in hard and fast. If one of my children asks, I’ll admit it. I’ll try to find a “brave thought” to back it up. And if (when) words fail me, I’ll remember that a hug sometimes says the only reassuring thing there is to say.
Struggling to Talk to Your Teenager? The Greatest Lesson I Ever Learned.
By Andy Braner, President/CEO of KIVU
So many of my friends with teenagers complain about the one-word answers they get when they attempt to communicate. They find it incredibly difficult to cultivate meaningful conversations with the very people who live under their roofs. I’ve heard hundreds of parent/teen conversations that sound something like this:
“Hey Honey, How was school?”
“Did you have a chance to do your homework?”
“What did you think about the movie you went to last night?”
And those of us with teenagers understand how complex it is to crack open a conversation with our teens. It seems like just yesterday they were running through the house longing for our attention, and then one day they woke up and turned into the one-word Zombie clan. I know several parents who ask themselves, “Why should I even try?”
Not long ago, I learned a valuable lesson about talking with my kids. I have to approach their world where they are.
So often, I counsel frustrated parents who feel “Well, he should do this,” or “she should do that.” We all quickly forget that NOBODY wants to have someone tell them what to do. Why should our teenagers feel any different?
A long-time mentor friend of mine said once, “if you want to talk to your kids, you have to meet them where they are.”
So… I started to work this out in real time.
When my youngest son was growing through elementary school, I noticed he had a gift for engineering. He loved building things. Blocks, Forts and especially LEGOS were his passion. He loved doing math, following instructions and watching his creation emerge from the box of 1,000 pieces.
Can you imagine?
What do you do when you have a 5-year-old who can sit for hours on the kitchen floor putting together the Death Star Lego set with 5,000 pieces? If you have a kid like this, let me be an encourager for a minute and say you have a kid with a gift.
I remember hearing my mentor’s words echo in the stillness of my own desire to connect with my son: “If you want to talk to your kids, you have to meet them where they are.”
Now, for a little background, I graduated with a degree in Theater Performance. I’m an artist. One thing you must know about artists — we don’t do Legos! Our brain functions differently. Sitting down to count the number of nipples on a block to make sure it fits in another is the farthest thing from what I think is a good time. But for the sake of my son, I started sitting amongst his piles of Legos with him.
For years, I forced myself to sit and learn to be interested in what he was interested in, and guess what? Today we have an incredible friendship. All those hours I spent meeting my son where he was and trying to be interested in the things he found valuable are paying off now. Sure, we have our fights. I have to correct, mentor and parent him. But for the most part, we’re good friends. He knows I love him and value his opinion. I know better how his mind functions and what makes him tick. He knows I’m in his corner and am his biggest cheerleader and I know he respects what I think. This is the bottom line of what it means to develop meaningful connections in families, with friends and certainly with people we work with.
If you’re having trouble connecting with your teen today, step back, take a deep breath, begin to notice the things they find valuable and start to engage.
You’re never going to understand the heart of your student by just letting them “figure life out.” After all, we’re parents, right? It’s our job, our duty and our incredible responsibility to teach, to train and to mentor our teens so they can go on to have long-term healthy relationships. If you can model for your teen what it means to connect, they will take this lesson with them wherever life unfolds.
Be encouraged today.
There are answers to helping parents connect with their kids, even when it seems like you don’t.
Follow Andy Braner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/braner