How Much “Bad News” is Safe to Share?
Hello <<First Name>>,
The toddler years can be perplexing, exhilarating and exhausting on a good day. But add the ever-present buzz of negative news, hate-filled rants and horrific tragedies like the most recent school shooting, and your job as a parent becomes even harder. This is because your child’s primary need is to feel safe, and that sense of security starts with you, Mom and Dad. When bad things happen—whether your child directly experienced or was impacted by it, or they have only heard about it—our toddlers, preschoolers and elementary aged children (teenagers, too), turn to us for support and protection. In unsteady times, they need us to be steady.
THE QUESTION IS: How do you convey a sense of safety when you’re not feeling so safe yourself?
Monitor your own emotional reaction. Maybe you’ve gotten a notification on your phone, or just checked a news website. Perhaps your dear friend called to deliver scary news. Ask yourself, 'How am I doing?' and be aware of your reaction. Children are like sponges, absorbing your emotions and responses, including body language, tone and tension. Toddlers feel the emotional climate even if they don’t understand what is being said. They can feel if Mommy is worried or Daddy is upset, and this in turn, can increase their level of fear or anxiety. They may even wonder if they caused something bad to happen. On 9/11 I was a young mother with two toddlers of my own. While I had a strong personal reaction to what was happening in my home city, I tried to handle my feelings separately from my boys. A tall order, but I managed to (mostly) stay grounded for them and maintain their sense of safety in our home.
Aim to maintain normalcy. If your family has been immediately impacted by a stressful event, do what you can to regain daily normalcy. Try to keep regular schedules of activities such as mealtimes and bedtimes, even if you have to move temporarily, as families did during recent fires and floods. Children thrive on familiar routines, and so do adults. Returning to familiar bedtime songs, books and tuck-in rituals are reassuring to children.
Keep the latest tragedy out of your young child's life. For any child under age 8 (and older, if you can), I advise you to keep today’s political tensions and tragedies out of your children's lives. That may mean turning off your TV and news notifications, and not checking your device while your child is awake or in the room with you. Their world is a small one, and it revolves around feeling safe. Also, toddlers and many young ones just aren't capable of understanding violence or the reality of many situations (and yet they can still feel worried and fearful). As an added benefit of taking a ‘News Break’ you are likely to feel less stress with less news, and your child will notice and feel calmer, too.
Provide your child with a context. A grade-schooler, on the other hand, might have overheard or heard directly about a shooting from friends or teachers, in which case it's important to step in. Reassure kids they're OK. Recognize that it's a terrible, terrible thing that happened, but that it's also not the norm. Reassure them that most people are good people. Children often receive information without understanding the larger picture, and that can heighten fears and add to a sense of insecurity. A parent recently told me that her 5-year-old was frightened after hearing that a child in her hometown had died from the flu. The child began to wonder if she could die, too. I suggested the mother let her know that lots of people get the flu and almost all of them get better. She reminded her daughter that she had a flu vaccine to help protect her. The mother acknowledged her daughter’s fear and continued to reassure her that she was there to keep her safe. When a bad thing happens far away, tell your child that it is scary, but we are okay, we are far away. This is the context children often lack and need to help quell their fears and restore feelings of security.
Listen to your child. Wait before you talk. Often without realizing it, many of us will overreact to our children, say too much and inadvertently provide more information than they can handle in the moment. At other times, you may feel the well-intentioned urge to minimize your child’s worries before you even know what their worries are. The key here is to gather a sense of what your child knows or is thinking about before you speak. You can ask what your child knows. Allow them to ask questions and lead the conversation. Gauge both how much they know and what their worries are and then, help to put their concerns in context (at an age-appropriate level). You can ask how they are feeling. Provide reassurance by acknowledging how scary something feels. By validating their emotional experience, your child feels understood and supported.
Surround yourself with support. With so much happening in the world, it’s important to have friends and close family with whom you can also lean on and share your experience. Turn to your loved ones for connection and support. And finally, remember self-care! Do something nice for yourself. A bike ride, a walk in the woods or coffee with a friend will help to bring down your own stress level so you can be grounded for your child.
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