In our country, we are not immune to complex and sensitive conversations around senseless violence. And as another school shooting is lighting up our kids’ screens, the ‘Hard-to-Have; chat is here again. As parents, we need to once again confront how we talk to our kids about the violence they are either catching glimpses of on their newly acquired devices or the violence they are witnessing on TV as they walk to the kitchen.
Whatever your younger child’s age, there are eight ‘good chat’ fundamentals:
- Be the first to check in – this gives your child the message that no online topic is taboo with you (and it stands you in good stead for future online discoveries)
Simply ask if they heard about the shooting, what they saw, and how they FEEL about what they saw. Younger and older kids may not have the words for how they feel. A great way to do this is to model it. Express how your own feelings showed up. For example, you could say: “I’m feeling so, so sad for those families. How are you feeling right now?”
2. Expressing feelings to younger children must ALWAYS accompany the sense that feelings can be contained.
You might follow that statement with “And when I feel sad for them, I feel a little better when I think how many people are there to support those families right now – maybe they are making supper for them, or maybe they are just sitting with them and letting them talk. That is a good gift to give someone when they are sad, right?”
3. Allow their feelings to accommodate a range of feelings – ‘confused’ can live with ‘sadness’, ‘fear’ can live with ‘fury’, ‘overwhelmed’ can live with ‘denial.’.
The idea is simply to let all feelings have a life. You might say “ I can feel more than one feeling at time – I feel sad for the families but I also feel so angry that no one could stop this man until it was too late. Do you think you have more than one feeling about this?”
4. No, I don’t know why: answer questions simply and truthfully. Not one of us has real answers as to the ‘why’ but it is a good moment to explain, in age-appropriate ways, how bottled-up feelings can come out in inexplicable rage and destruction. A sentence to a younger child might be something like “we don’t know why he killed those children, but what we do know is that it is good to talk to people when you have hard feelings. I like it when you tell me your feelings, even if they aren’t always the good feelings”.
5. Give appropriate reassurance around their safety
Across the world, children may personally incur in hijackings, violent home intrusions and as we know, even war. So while school shootings may not be a familiar local event, events like the Texas shooting may trigger our children into fearing for their own safety. At these times ,we have to give appropriate reassurance around their security. Thus while you cannot guarantee their safety, you can always say, I am your mom/dad and my most important job is to keep you safe. It is your job to be a kid. Can you trust me to do my job and I am going to trust you to do your job. Deal?”
If they are very little, invite them to sit on your lap for a ‘buckle up safety cuddle – a strong holding cuddle around their chest (Firm, physical containment is very helpful in regulating anxiety). While you have your arms around them, say “I am going to say it again, I will always do everything I can to keep you safe. It is my job to worry about you, it is your job to just be a kid – that’s a big job that involves playing, sport, school, friends. I am going to help you to do that job in a safe and happy way”.
6. Get down to brass tacks
If they keep raising their fears around their safety, have a chat with your children at supper to let them know you have a family plan around emergencies, whatever that may be. Ensure your children know who to call in a moment of panic if they can’t reach you, where to meet if they are separated from you and/or how (and how much) to communicate with a stranger in the case of an emergency. This helps children feel secure and know adults are in control.
7. Empower older teens in the family to manage their feelings And what about the older teen in your family? A very important part of managing feelings for teens is ensure that they don’t feel helpless in the face of them. Older kids may feel like the world they are growing up in is a sick and ugly world. Teens may feel like the world is spinning out of control and that there’s not much they can do about it. Feeling disillusioned and cynical can be mitigated by encouraging our teens to convert their sense of helplessness and passivity into activity. No-where is this more true than in their online world. Anything that allows a teen to feel that they can make an impact, have a voice or be heard, is a powerful remedy for pessimism. Talk with adolescents about what it has taken to emerge from dark periods of history, and what our responsibility is in situations like this — explain that we have to push for the change that we want to see in the world. A chat might look like: “If you wanted to change the amount of pocket money you get, would you motivate for it? Well whatever we are dissatisfied with in our world, we are the only ones who can motivate for change. Maybe you can join a page where people can voice their concerns over the gun ownership in our own country, or maybe you want to make one of your own”.
Help your teen to know they have the best tool in the world to do bring about change – their phones!
8. Ultimately, moving on must be modelled
If you don’t want your children to keep watching the graphic imagery online, we have to model that we don’t have CNN playing on repeat in the TV room. Once you have the info you want, actively state “ . I don’t feel good when I keep seeing the same scenes play over and over. It makes me feel despondent/anxious/angry.” I have got the facts around this incident, I am going to watch a different programme now/ go for a walk/ make supper. This kind of acknowledgement is absorbed far more easily by our children than the hypocritical lecture that says ‘get offline, it’s not good for you to keep watching this violence’ (while we are switching channels madly to catch BBC’s take, Aljazeera’s footage and SABC’s commentary)
As always, it’s about staying connected. You are the best offset for any violence seen on any screen!
Sarah and Pam