Saturday, December 15, 2012

Talking to Kids About The Hard Stuff: When, Why, and How To Do It

I grew up in Los Angeles, California, where in addition to fire drills, we practiced earthquake drills.  And when the big Northridge Earthquake hit in 1994, you better believe our parents were thrilled our school had implemented those precautions.

And you know what some schools have today besides fire and earthquake drills?  LOCKDOWN drills.  That's right.  You know, in case something horrific might occur.  Just like Sandy Hook Elementary School had practiced before yesterday; just like Sandy Hook Elementary School followed through with yesterday.

And I can't help but start to feel, that as a new parent, I'm more than a little terrified at the prospect of ever again letting my child out of my sight, or entrusting them anywhere ever again.  Which I know is a little absurd, but actually a lot valid.  Because as any parent or caregiver sits in front of a TV or computer, we are being told that these types of tragedies are actually quite rare.  But honestly, who the hell cares how rare they are when it could affect your child?  The answer is, no one...

I am currently in a lucky position, in that "Bird" is only just 8-months-old, and therefore neither in school nor do we need to explain this sickening tragedy to her.  However, as the news made its way around the country, and with social media topping the charts in modes of communication, I saw some of the immediate reactions of parents out there--and once parents had their children safe in their care, their next concern was how to speak with their kids about these events.  Parents were scared: How would they even begin this discussion?  Should they bring it up?  Would schools do it for them?

These are all, of course, valid questions.  And just as this tragedy is incredibly sensitive, the response to it will be incredibly individual.  And though, as parents of a younger child, my husband and I are not in the position to be acting on these questions right now, I am not naive to the fact that one day we will inevitably be faced with something similar.  As I thought about how I might go about this, I immediately was taken back to my past life as a Certified Child Life Specialist, whose job description it is to attempt to "normalize" the hospitalization process for children as much as possible.  Training at a local hospital, I was part of a team whose role it was to prepare children for what to expect while staying for both acute and chronic illnesses and maladies.  This ranged anywhere from a broken arm, to incurable forms of cancer, and anywhere in between.  And though it may seem like a scary thought to explain situations of that sort to small children, the school of thought is, children actually do better and are less anxious when given developmentally-appropriate information.

Though many articles on how to help children through yesterday's events have been floating around the internet, the takeaway is really the same: to tell children without a doubt that they are safe, to use appropriate concrete terms to put them at ease ("your school does        and        to make sure this will never happen"), and frankly, to not tell them more than a child of their developmental age needs to know (i.e., a 9-year-old can know much more than a 6-year-old).  The hard part is too much information can be just as anxiety-provoking as too little information, and where should the line be drawn?  I always suggest first "assessing" your child: Might they already know about what happened?  If so, ask them to tell you what happened (before you explain) so you are able to get a sense of how they view it, rather than telling them anything to begin.  If they only know a few details, that is okay.  Again, sometimes more information can produce further worry.  If there are misunderstandings in their version that make the story even worse for them to think about (i.e. "all the kids were hurt"), correct them ("no honey, most of the kids were safe with their teachers).  And then once more, reassure them that they are fine ("but when you go to school, you are safe with Ms. Smith).  Ask if they have any more questions ("are you wondering anything else about what you heard?").  Reassure them. Then ask if they have any more worries.  Reassure them a fourth, fifth, and sixth time.  And be prepared to have the entire conversation over again if your child makes it clear, in their own way, that they need to.

Give a little information.  Give some hugs.  Give tons of love.  And know you are doing everything you can.

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