November 20, 2023
I’ve written this blog in my head many times. Everytime there’s a tragedy. Everytime something horrible happens.
And then it’s over. And I don’t want to write it. Because I don’t want us to need to talk to kids about terrible things and scary things and tragic things. I don’t want to.
But…I also want them to live and thrive in a “gray world” rather than pretending that things are black and white and be in for a rude awakening when they grow up. I want to tell the truth and reassure, even when it doesn’t feel like those two things go together.
This blog is meant to give some guidelines based on my experience as a psychologist and parent. Some of the common things we do can backfire – e.g., promising kids nothing bad will ever happen. Below, I’ve provided some realistic suggestions rooted in what feels to me like integrity and reality.
(Skip to the checklist at the bottom if you’re short on time!)
Mama Bear Feelings
Earlier this month, I got choked up as I watched my daughter walk into school alone.
She had a little pep in her step as always. The girl loves school. Full of “mom, look at this!” And “mom, guess what I learned today!” She’s so proud of her low ponytail with a matching scrunchie and headband, usually pink or blue to match her outfit.
She walked in under a half-mast flag. (Is it ever full-mast anymore? Should it be?) That day, something felt a little different. Maybe because no other kids were around. Maybe because of the most recent tragedy. Perhaps, it was because she turned around to smile and wave and make a little “I love you” sign with her hand.
She looked so little. So innocent. The exact person that I don’t want to talk to about hard things. About school shootings. About people who hurt children. About scary, uncontrollable and unpredictable things. I don’t want her to know those things exist.
Her little body can’t take that weight. It’ll crush her. Her biggest stresses are her peanut allergy and her friend not wanting to play. Her soccer team losing or the wifi buffering. She already carries enough stress with her food allergies and big feelings. It’s plenty. It already feels like too much.
I just want to be the adult and hold it all in and keep it from her. To handle it for her.
But I know I can’t. Someone at school will say something. There’ll be an assembly. A lockdown. A drill.
I need to be the one. The one to say it “right,” whatever that means. The one to be clear and kind and direct but also minimal and aimed at her 8-year-old brain. No lies but no panic.
Reassurance and living in the gray might sounds like “I don’t know everything” and “bad things do happen sometimes.” It also sounds like “most people are so good” and “aren’t we so lucky?” And “every day can be a great day.” Not every day is, but every day can be. Not everyone is kind, but everyone can be.
Big Picture Goals
When I think about my big picture goals for talking to my kids about difficult things, this is what I want them to know.
- Most people, almost all people, are so so good. They are kind. They are trying hard. Their difficulties make sense, and they are doing the best they can.
- Bad, scary things are in the news because they aren’t common. They rarely happen. They are possible but rare. We need to be prepared but not scared. Ready to use common sense but not looking for danger.
- We need to trust people, to trust the adults and people in charge. Most of them are trustworthy.
- We also need to trust and use our own brains. We need to follow the rules and follow our instincts. We should listen to our hearts to know when something isn’t right or doesn’t sit well with us.
- We can handle difficult things. We have and we will. We can and we must. We have no other choice.
- We don’t have to do it all by ourselves. And we don’t have to prepare for it all now. We don’t know what we’ll need to handle. We can’t know, but we also aren’t alone.
- Worrying about it now probably won’t help. That doesn’t mean it’s dumb to worry or someone is stupid or weak if they worry. But we often do it because it feels helpful, like it’s getting us somewhere. A little worry – “productive worry” – might make us prepared, like studying for a test or packing for a trip. A lot of worry – “unproductive worry” – will make us freeze and panic and miss out on now; on all of the good and peaceful things, the beautiful and calm things.
- Too much worry will confuse our feelings. It’ll make us have a hard time distinguishing real fear from appropriate and necessary risks, like talking in front of a crowd or taking a chance on a new friend. Trying a new hobby or joining a new team. Those scary feelings are okay. They help us grow. We can’t run from all the scary feelings. We shouldn’t see them all as bad.
- I can’t control everything. But I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe. Everything. There is nothing I won’t do to keep you safe. I’ll worry for you. I’ll worry for us. I will carry it and pack it with me. You don’t have to. It’s the adults’ job to worry. We got it. You can be a kid. Don’t miss it. It goes by quickly.
- When it’s too much, I’ll help you sort it out. You aren’t alone with it. You aren’t weird for feeling it. You are human. You notice things. You care about things. That is a great thing about you. It is also tricky because feelings can be huge and scary and sudden, and we’re not always ready for them.
Consider this as a kind of checklist for a difficult things conversation:
Acknowledge it happened
- So they don’t feel crazy
- So you model communication
- So they hear it from you
- Example: “You might have heard kids at school talking about ___”
- OR “You might have noticed this ___”
Help them know they are safe.
- Not safe in a “nothing bad can ever happen to you” way
- But safe in a “my number one priority is your safety and here are all the ways I make sure you are safe”Facts and concrete information can help with this.
- Example: “I am learning about this to make sure I know what to do to keep you safe.”
- OR “This happened really far away in another part of the world.”
Differentiate between what we can control and what we can’t.
- And help them know what is and is not their responsibility. This differs greatly by age. For example, with my 8 and 12-year-olds, my responsibility is to lock the doors and turn on the outside lights and do other things that keep our house secure. With our older kids, my role is to check in on them, know where they are, teach them how to use common sense. Their role is to use common sense, to communicate with me, to speak up when something feels unsafe, to share their feelings with someone they trust.
- Example: “These are the things we do in our family to keep ourselves safe…”
Let them have their feelings.
- Not in an out of control way. But let them feel them and know that it doesn’t kill them to feel them. Help them know that you have scary feelings, too. Feelings just want to be felt. They come back up more vigorously when they are pushed down and ignored and when parents try to talk kids out of their feelings.
- Example: “I feel a little scared too. Usually, it helps me to learn a little more information or to talk to someone who knows about these kinds of things.”
- OR “When things happen that sound scary, sometimes our bodies act weird. Our hearts start beating fast, and we have scary thoughts and a lot of questions. Usually, once we understand it better, our bodies and brains calm down.”
Try again if you wish you had said it differently.
- If you shared too much or not enough, try again with your adjusted filter. If you said it in a way that sounded too old or too young for their developmental level, try again in an 8 year old way or a 12 year old way. We are modeling that we are human and present and trying, not that we are perfect or geniuses or unflappable.
- Example: “Earlier, when we talked, I used [this word], and I realize now that it wasn’t the best word to use.”
- OR “I think you’re old enough to hear a little more about this, so you understand it.”
My daughter is reading next to me now. Cupcake Diaries and other stories that 8-years-olds should read. No guns or death. No fear or horror. Just friendship and problem-solving and laughing and illustrations. No news stories. Not yet. Just fiction and fun.
I’ll read the news, so she doesn’t have to. I’ll initiate the conversations, so she doesn’t have to; so her little body doesn’t have to spin up as she decides what she feels and if she should ask. I’ll be brave and say things wrong and try, so that she can continue to trust and feel and know that there is someone safe to catch those worries and scary feelings and help her sort through them.
Dr. Kelly Jones
Executive Director, Outpost Summer Camps
“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” Brené Brown