When I turn on the TV and take in all the tragedy and violence happening in the world, including most recently the Orlando mass shooting, the tragic death of a little boy in Disney World, the senseless murder of a former Voice contestant, my heart turns into this enormous object that I somehow must carry around with me all day. I need to figure out how to function like that. How to be a wife, mom, daughter, sister, friend, and therapist – all while adapting to the unbearable weight of heart and soul. And that’s just me. Just one person. Now add up all the people in the world who are collectively grieving, stressing and worrying. They too need to make accommodations for their own heavy hearts. Please don’t forget the people who don’t even realize the effects that the violence has on them. They are the ones who block it out, push to down, and pretend that everything is fine – or so they’d like to believe. These are the people who don’t speak of the weight of their hearts and attempt to move on at same pace, often burning out or flipping out when the extra weight becomes too great to bear. So let’s just stop and think about that for a minute. Here is the truth: EVERYONE is HURTING. EVERYONE is WORRIED. EVERYONE is ANXIOUS. That’s an awful lot of adults walking around interacting from a place of hurt, worry, and anxiety.
Now for another moment, let’s consider OUR CHILDREN. From little ones to big ones, THEY ARE WATCHING YOU. They know something is going on, and they are ALL looking to YOU to try to figure out if they should be worried. So here are the big questions:
HOW DO WE PROCESS ALL OF OUR FEELINGS ABOUT ORLANDO AND HOW DO WE TALK TO OUR KIDS ABOUT IT?
Before you begin ANY conversations with your child, you MUST first have an understanding and awareness of your OWN anxiety and fears. How are YOU processing everything? What are you worried about? What are your fears? How do your worries manifest themselves? It is important that you understand all of this so that you can keep your anxiety at bay when interacting and speaking with your children. They pick up everything from you, and the more you show your own fears, the greater theirs will become, regardless of the quality of your discussion.
The most important message you want to communicate to yourself AND your children is to focus on the GOOD all around us. Here are some basics age by age: (Please remember that these are guidelines, NOT absolutes. YOU know your own child best. Consider their age, maturity level, ability to process challenging or difficult concepts, and how they manage anxiety or worries.)
Under 5: Shield them from as much as possible. Do not have the tv on with the news, or the radio. There is too much graphic content on both outlets for any child to see/hear, even if you think they can’t fully understand it. They are still taking it in. If your child picks up on something, or has any questions at all, your response should be something like: “Yes, sometimes bad things happen, but the whole world is full of good, loving people.” Remind them that they are loved and they are safe. Do not spend a great deal of time talking about it. Be positive and stick to your regular schedule and family structure, which only reinforces feelings of security for children.
5-8: Again, shield them from as much media as possible. Inevitably, they may get some information from school, either on the bus or in the lunchroom, but my experience has been that most kids are talking about the here and now – and super important things like lunch and recess. Consider your child’s personality and answer any questions they may have, but again, don’t let them go on and on asking more and more questions. Often, this will only exacerbate any already existing anxiety about the situation and will make things worse, not help them to feel better. Another idea is to allow 1-2 questions per day if needed, and limit the discussions to only 5 minutes. Spend the MOST time challenging your child to name all the good and thoughtful people they know in their lives. Help them see how much happiness surrounds them each day, and emphasize the importance of tolerance. Talk to them about ways they can learn more about someone who seems different. Let them know it is okay to ask others questions when they don’t fully understand the way someone behaves.
9-12: This is definitely the age range when you want to truly understand how your child operates and processes information. At this age, it’s good to check in with your child about what he knows or understands about what happened. Ask them to share what information they have with you, so you can make sure they are aware of the facts and clarify anything they might have wrong. Some kids will want to talk about it a great deal, and some very little to not at all. Take cues from your child. Let them make the call about what they need. Also, make sure to keep an eye on their eating, sleeping, and general habits. Changes in these things can sometimes be a sign of increased anxiety, stress, or depression in kids. Also, reinforce empathy and tolerance here as well. Have them share ways they can be more inclusive of others and ask them to picture themselves walking in someone else’s shoes. This will help kids begin to learn and practice awareness of others and that someone else’s daily life experiences can be markedly different from their own. “Everybody has something”, a quote from Robin Roberts, is a great one to help kids conceptualize the idea that everyone has a challenge they face in their lives.
13 and up: Again you want to determine what they know. “Did you hear about what happened in Orlando? What did you hear? How are you feeling about what happened? What do you think about it?” Be receptive here to a kid who wants to discuss it and one who does not. Either are perfectly fine. Lead the chat into one of positivity, how your child can facilitate change in his own community, and what does you child have power and control over in his own life.
When communicating with a child of any age about something so awful and out of our control, it is so very important to focus on a few key points:
Reassure your child that he and your family is safe.
Continue functioning as normally as possible – stick to your regular schedule and stay busy. Too much downtime feeds worry.
Stay active. Exercise of any kind is proven to decrease symptoms of anxiety and worry.
Heavily focus on pointing out the good all around you. “Look for the helpers”, as Mr. Rodgers would say.
Have an understanding and awareness of your own emotions over the events, being careful not to communicate your own panic or anxiety to your child.
Be together. Plan a family dinner, have a family fun night or movie night, pray together as a family for others that love, tolerance and peace will prevail.
Encourage positive community action – when feeling helpless, doing something in your neighborhood and community for someone else can bring about tremendous peace.
Most importantly, be kind to one another. So many people already are dealing with massive amounts of emotional and life stress, including anxiety, that an event like this can easily trigger a downward spiral for many people. Be supportive and understanding – you have absolutely no idea what someone else’s daily experiences are.