As we watched again the unfolding of another world tragedy in Brussels and sat one more time with the horrible realization that this has in some ways become our new reality, for now, the minds of many big people naturally went to how to manage this information and make sense of it for their children.
The last thing we want is for these kind of events to rob our children of the innocence of their childhood and leave them with the lingering fear that they live in a world that is not safe.
Certainly, very young children – usually by about the age of 3 years – will be aware of the difference between good and evil. You will see the evidence of this in watching any child within that age range play. The young child’s play world is rife with themes of good and evil – the evil witch and the captured princess, super heroes who save the day and defeat the bad guys, etc.
And by about age 5, most children have begun to internalize the finality of death and as a result, the precious fragility of life. A child with this stark understanding of life and death will have a very different experience in coming into any knowledge of the terror filled events that too often seem to be touching our lives.
So knowing anything about events like Paris or San Bernadino, CA or today’s events in Brussels can leave a child undone and upset. Fortunately, there are several things big people can do to manage all of this for their children, having their children land on hope and resilience in the face of horror and despair. Here are five such things that will have your children landing safely in your arms in spite of our world feeling so unsettled:
This is the time to have your swagger on for your children. You have got to be big and you have got to communicate confidence and certainty to your children in a time when things can feel very uncertain. I am reminded of a dad who was interviewed by a reporter together with his little son after the Paris attacks. The video went viral and I am certain this is because the world needed to see how you get your swagger on for your children when these kinds of things happened.
As he listened to his son’s worried comments about the bad guys and their guns, this dad beautifully and assuredly responded that while those guys might have guns, “Paris has flowers…” In the background of the clip, streams of mourners were laying flowers at the site of the massacre. Then the boy asked “Flowers to protect?” and the dad said something like “Yes, they might have guns but we have flowers.” And just like that, the little boy nodded in understanding as a look of relief came over his sweet little face.
So get your swagger on. Be big.
Own your tears
Many of us big people will have some tears about these world events. And sometimes, our tears will come during moments when our children are close at hand, bearing witness to this grief. Since our children rely on us to be their emotional co-regulators, due to the still immature forms of their brains, seeing us in tears can often really shake them. So if you have some visible grief in front of your child, be sure to own it and explain it.
You don’t need to go into all sorts of detail about why you are sad. But rather, just call it like it is. It might be something like “I am having some tears right now – that is a mom/dad’s job when other people are sad/hurting. Don’t you worry about me – I’m ok. This is just part of my job right now.”
Look for the helpers
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would always say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This is a well known quote from Fred Rogers that lands on a very important piece of how we can support our children through unsettled times. During the carnage and chaos, there are always helpers. And often, in the days that follow, after the initial reporting of an incident has happened, the stories that we hear are of the people that helped. The message of safety even in the midst of chaos is an important one for children (and adults!) to hear.
Curb the information flow
A child of any age should not be watching and hearing the news of these unfolding stories. Keep your car radios off. Watch your television news programs only when your children are either not home or have no chance of overhearing the contents. This information is not appropriate for children. And once they see it or hear it, it cannot be un-seen or un-heard. So be fierce about this. Make sure grandparents and babysitters and others involved in the care of your children also have a very clear understanding of this limit. Of course, you won’t be able to control all of the information that your children come into but for the things that you can be on top of, make sure that you are.
Land on hope
Scientifically, our brains actually release different neurotransmitters in the face of hope. We can be in the most challenging, dire situation but if somehow our brain can land on a belief of hope it literally changes what is happening chemically. And with that change, our emotions shift and we can find a will to push on, seek happiness, and feel safer. So in all of this for your children, land on hope. What has changed for the better as a result of what happened? What do we know now that we didn’t know before? Find a way to pull a ray of hope out of the darkness of these situations. Your child (and your child’s brain!) will thank you.