When scary stuff happens, talking to our kids really works

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We learned firsthand on Friday that we no longer have the luxury of protecting our kids from hearing about scary things in the news. But that doesn’t mean we need to be afraid.

As I was leaving the gym at about 2pm on Friday, I checked my phone and noticed several text messages from both of my high school age daughters. This was weird because they usually don’t text when they’re in class. As I scrolled through the texts, I was able to piece together that their high school had been evacuated and was on lockdown due to a gun/shooting threat. As might be expected, I was quickly overcome with a wave of panic, but I was soon able to get in touch with them and determine that although they were somewhat shaken, they were ok.

While my daughters’ school was still on lockdown, my wife texted me and asked how we should approach talking to our younger daughters about this scary news. But before we had a chance to plan that conversation, we learned that our middle school daughter had already heard about what was going on from friends and teachers at her school.

In other words, we didn’t get the chance to frame the discussion about scary things with our younger daughter because today’s media environment doesn’t allow for that anymore. Everyone now has a phone, meaning everyone is now a pseudo-news outlet.

Since Friday, I have been asked by several people about how we should talk to our kids about scary current events. I’m not a therapist, but my reading of the research could provide a little direction. First, I want my older kids to have a firm grasp on reality. By the time they’re in high school, I feel like my kids are ready for the truth. The trick with them is to help them distinguish truth from rumor, because rumors about the event were spreading like crazy. But, our approach with our younger kids is a bit different. Yes, we want them to grasp reality. But we also want them to be able to remain kids as long as possible. Because we couldn’t protect them from hearing about things, our approach was to help them reframe things in a positive light. We talked with them about how in bad situations there are always people there to protect us. Our local law enforcement did a fantastic job, as usual. We also told them that these things make the news because they’re rare, they’re an anomaly. We did our best to help them feel safe and protected, despite the scary stuff going on around them.

I’ve learned a few things from Friday’s ordeal (which turned out to be a mean prank pulled by some students, by the way). First, I learned that due to today’s media environment, we may not be able to keep our kids from hearing about some really scary stuff. Second, I saw firsthand how parent-child conversations like the ones I described above seemed to help our kids feel more settled and less anxious about things. And third, it was reiterated to me once again what the Beatles knew long ago, that all we need is love. I’m not a well-spoken politician. And I’m definitely no Mother Teresa. But I do know that love can solve a lot of problems. And until those with bad intentions learn that lesson, we can do our best to help our kids feel loved, and not afraid, through the conversations we have with them.

And that may be the best protection we could ever offer our kids.

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