As cities and social media explode with anger over the violence and looting, worried parents are struggling to protect their children from seeing the worst of the violence while simultaneously explaining the ravages of poverty, anger and long-held hurts.
We totally get that telling parents to create a safe space when we, ourselves feel unsafe is a tall and patronising order.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time. Sheltering at home for months to avoid the deadly coronavirus, many parents stressed by juggling work and child care from home had eased their restrictions on screen time for their children. So now it’s even more likely that kids might see, stream and share some heavy-going imagery about our country right now.
Little ones and teens alike are hearing big voices using phrases like ‘gone to the dogs’, ‘tinder box’ and ‘burn alive’ without really comprehending their ominous tone.
Even if they haven’t directly come across it on social media accounts, or had conversations with friends, they are seeing adult distress in the faces of those they love. Make no mistake, our children know what is going on. And without the guidance and validation of the meaningful adults in their world, they are navigating their feelings alone.
So – here are a few pointers when talking to our screenagers about our country right now:
- Think of the Country as a School Setting. It’s never helpful to badmouth your child’s principal in front him/her. Whatever your grievance with the current leadership, you would still want your child to show up at school with their best selves. It’s hard if you have undermined their system. It’s the same for the country. Whatever your struggle with our current government, we live here and we want it to work. Keep the disparaging conversations to a limit and away from younger ears.
- We are not unique even if it feels that way right now. Remember America had protests in upmarket streets of LA just a few months ago, so did Italy. England is ready to protest over a lost football match. We are struggling for sure, but South Africa is not unique. Help children to know that.
- When watching the news, don’t launch into off the cuff, retaliatory or aggressive statements that you will later regret. If we mirror the aggression we are seeing, our children’s anxieties are pronounced – not only is the country out of control but my parents are too!
- Don’t overshare or become dramatic. If you are the parent who thinks the pool should be drained to keep tinned food, do it. But keep the sentiment in the adult arena.
- Really speak to your t/weens, not at them and go in light (even though the subject matter is heavy) – As the parent of any teenager will attest, direct questioning of teens often doesn’t produce constructive responses. Giving our own views is also often only heard as being sanctimonious. So, step away from the soap box and just ask if they have seen anything online about the riots and protests, what they think about them, what about it was upsetting or infuriating. Maybe they saw an inspiring moment when someone helped someone else – just do the asking to begin with. In this way we can have a conversation where they come to some understanding and willingly begin to see this moment in time in a larger social context.
- Children are literal! Teens are thrill seekers. When children hear our flippant remarks about the country “burning to the ground”, or “we won’t have food on the table if this carries on” they translate it in concrete terms. This makes a *little bit of anxiety a lot of anxiety very quickly*. Teens in contrast to our little ones however, ever seeking the thrill, jump on the hysterical bandwagon and become entwined in the drama. They mirror our negativity and pessimism with ease.
- Remind our teens that fear lives off fake news and ignorance. Watch what you need to stay informed about your community, but then turn it off. This a great time to model the importance of sticking to facts, not fuelling the fires of fake news by sharing alarmist, unverified WhatsApp messages and not making fun of other people’s fury. The Klikd App has a super fun module on Fake News and how to separate fake from fiction, particularly on WhatsApp messages – may be a time to explore this together?
- Let your teens find their voice and use the moment. Online activism is a coping response for some adolescents, especially right now while we’re physically distant. Reposting, retweeting, expressing how they’re feeling, chatting with friends can be a helpful, active kind of coping response. Encourage it, provided it’s true and helpful (great time to have a chat about separating fact from fiction online)!
- Do the things that makes your family feel tight. This is a great time to bed down as a family unit. If that is the proverbial baking, bike-riding or snuggling in bed with a movie, do what makes your family feel “we are still us”.
- Don’t avoid the hard stuff. Proactively engage your kids around these distressing events. Don’t dismiss their feelings even if they overwhelm you. Validate their feelings and let them know it’s okay to feel rage, frustration, confusion, long-term fear for their future. Just sit with it. Don’t correct them, don’t agree…just be with them in the moment. Do the same for the smalls. These are important moments to inform them of the basic safety you may have created in your own home, not as a way of dismissing their feelings but as a way of responding to them.
- Ground yourself before you leap into a discussion about what you may have just seen online or on the news. This doesn’t mean letting go of the anger or anxiety, it just means organizing it better so you can be conscious of what you choose to let your child hear from you!
- Timing is everything. Consciously decide not just what but when you will and won’t talk about with your teens (and coffee friends for that matter). So, talking to a little one in the afternoon while its’ still light leaves a far greater space for them to take on board the information, they need to feel reassured. Similarly with teens, talking to them just after you have limited screen time or said no to a sleepover will not see them open to having a constructive chat about their views on the protests. Choose your moment.
- Find the Gold. These times provide great moments for what we at KLIKD call the ‘gold conversations’. When things go wrong out there, these stand out as golden moments to impart your own values as a family. So, in the same way as you might talk pornography when an incident happens at school, this is the time to give your children the broader societal context of what brought the protests into being. *Our older kids will be able to think more abstractly about injustice and violent versus peaceful protest and discuss their views with parents. By doing so, you can help our tweens and teens to discern long standing issues, from destructive behaviours.* We can help them build empathy for causes but not for chaos and we can teach perspective-taking, rather than focusing only on the fears. Questions like
- How do you think those people were feeling?
- What do you think pushed them to this place?
- Do you think you could ever be pushed to behave in this way?
- Do you know why they were angry?
- What do you do when you feel like something is unfair?’
Providing a controlled space to understand what is going on and ways to process it will help children navigate the distressing emotions, helplessness and fear they may be experiencing.
- If it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Remind yourself and your family that the protests are time-based. Younger children in particular don’t have a sense that this cannot go on indefinitely. The protests will end. Who we are in these moments and how we show up is what counts. This is the time to make sandwiches for the guards at your gate, or for little ones, you might take an afternoon to paint a thank you sign for a police station. In what for all of us is a time of chaos and overwhelm, empowering kids to feel that they have made a difference gives them just that, a sense of power,
Above all, stay connected.
And then, rest.
Love Pam and Sarah
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