Talking to our kids about tragedy was thrown into razor sharp focus on September 11, 2001.
We were vacationing on Square Pond in Maine at the Collard family cottage. Lots of families were there the weekend before, enjoying time with their grownup kids who would drive up the coast from New York City to get a break.
No one wanted to turn off their tv, and CNN was an endless round of wailing sirens, babbling anchors and weeping spectators. I’m ashamed to admit it took me about 15 minutes to look at the twins, just 18 months and realize they could be absorbing this. They were too young then, obviously, for discussion, but we instantly turned off the tv and kept the rest of the afternoon calm and pleasant.
Since then it seems like we’ve all seen an acceleration of one shocking act after another, and with the latest school shooting, I’ve had to dig out my psychiatrist father’s instructions once again.
1. Turn OFF the TV!!!! Please, learn from my mistake. No matter how young the children are or how little you think they’re absorbing it, they are. And they may not have the words to ask you what those terrible noises and pictures mean.
2. “We will do everything to keep you safe.” “If it can happen to those kids, can it happen to me?” Scary thoughts for a little person, and the first step is to reassure them that as grownups, we do everything possible to keep them safe. “Sometimes scary or bad things can happen, but Mom and Dad are here, and we are protecting you.”
3. How does this make you feel? I used to hate it when Dr. Alan (my dad) would ask us that endlessly in his “shrink voice.” But it’s the same thing that pops out of my mouth now. And it works. Listen to their thoughts and worries, no matter how off base they may seem. Discuss. Talk about your feelings, let them know you feel sad or scared, too.
4. Draw, create your feelings. Many kids don’t have the words or the willingness to express their fears. I’ve drawn with the twins, used yarn, clay…whatever medium seemed useful to them to express what they were feeling.
5. Focus on the good in people. The twins and I have baked cookies before to thank fire fighters and police officers. Zachie insisted on buying dog treats for the K-9 units. We would always talk about and focus on the heroes and the courageous people who raced in to help. We constantly discuss how there are so many more good people in this world than the bad or the sick. The acts seemed to help Zachie and MacLean reclaim some of their power and faith that they could “do something about it.”
6. Be as honest as their age allows. When the boys were younger, we said only that “there are sick and angry people in this world that sometimes hurt other people. We will keep you safe, and we will do everything we can to help the people who got hurt.” As they got older, the steps in #5 above gave them purpose.
There’s a wonderful series of articles about this issue on the “Mr. Rogers” website–it’s wonderful to know Fred’s legacy lives on…