I had the great opportunity to offer crisis response to parents, co-workers, and neighbors. It was a deeply humbling and awe-inspiring experience. This piece came out of those experiences and conversations.
Parents, by definition, have three primary roles.
Their first duty is to cover the physical basics for their children. Food, a roof over their heads, shoes on their feet — the rudimentary physical necessities of shelter, sustenance, and clothing. And under this rubric, there would also be the notion of safety and protection — keeping their child safe and secure and protected from reasonable harm. (Clearly and alas, sudden violent attacks are not an anticipated or rationale event for which parents can protect their children 24/7.)
The parents’ second job is to nurture their child so that he or she can unfold, blossom, and bloom into an authentic, creative, responsible, and caring being.
Their third responsibility is to offer guidance and instruction in life skills so that their child is prepared to walk in the world as a functioning, independent grown-up. You know the saying, “Parents give their children both roots and wings.”
In today’s world, meeting these parental duties can be challenging at best. Life throws curve balls. Be it job loss, homelessness, war, violence, natural disasters, death, hunger, poverty, illness, and the like, these life-changing events strain even the broadest of shoulders and stiffest of spines.
After the Newtown shootings, life felt even more fragile and frightening. Parents felt powerless to protect their kids from a world gone mad. The shootings prompted every parent to hold their child a little bit harder, to guiltily feel relieved that it was not their child who was killed, and to wonder how they can make their kids feel safe in a topsy-turvy world.
What can a parent do to help their children feels safe in an uncertain world?
- Be authentic. Express your true feelings.
Children may not always understand your words, but they can feel the truth of what you are saying. Speaking your truth allows your kids to feel safe. They can trust you. Your words and feelings match. You are coherent.
- Share information in an age appropriate way.
Little kids have no need to know gory details, much less watch repetitive news videos of violence. If there are questions, answer them truthfully in a way that they will understand. Older kids will want to discuss with you what this means and how it will impact their lives. They will learn from you that it is ok to feel all sorts of feelings – and none of which are bad; they just are.
One of the Sandy Hook teachers told her class of little ones they were not going outside that Friday morning because their playground was broken. The smalls nodded in understanding.
3. It is ok to not have all the answers. It’s ok to say you don’t know.
By admitting that you don’t know everything, you teach your kids that they don’t have to know everything. You teach them to accept mystery – the huge questions of the universe that defy a simple response in that moment – or for a lifetime.
You, also, teach your kids that when you don’t know what to do, you put on our thinking cap. You ask questions; you gather information; you ask for help; and, then, you can figure your options and strategies. All of this digging for answers and problem-solving helps your children to expand their creativity and resourcefulness — and those are the building blocks of learning life mastery.
4. Build on family strength and circle the wagons.
Following the Newtown shooting, a Dad came home to his wife and three kids. His teenager was doing ok. His youngest child was too young to know much of what has transpired, and his middle child (10 years old) was very upset and could not stop crying. That night, after dinner, the Dad decided that they would push together all the modular furniture in the family room and be together for the night. Mom, Dad, the three kids, and two dogs all slept together. It was an inspired idea that made all the difference in the world. His 10 year old was noticeably more stable in the morning and the whole family felt connected with one another.
Circling the wagons is a time-honored tradition. They did it in the old west for safety, security, and protection. It’s a good practice to remember when the going gets terrible. We forget how much we need each other. There is solidarity in feeling that physical and emotional connection. Everything is less scary when we go through it together and share the experience. And we give one another strength, comfort, and hope when we stand — and sleep — together.
5. Remind your children that they are not alone.
If your kids are young, there is a wonderful drawing exercise that allows kids to see, feel, and know they are not alone. If your children are older, the theme of this exercise makes an excellent talking point for some in-depth conversation.
Get a good-sized piece of blank paper along with crayons, markers, colored pencils, and the like. Have your child draw themselves as a stick figure in the middle of the page. Then, ask your child to draw the people who make them feel loved, cared for, and safe. Draw these identified people around their stick-figure-self. Ideally, your child will see herself flanked by a myriad of loved ones and visually grasp that she is not alone. As the saying goes, a picture can be worth a thousand words.
6. Take positive actions.
The unknown make us nervous. Unexpected terror and violence are crazy-making and can make us hypervigilant, super anxious, and inordinately fearful. One of the best ways to deal with anxiety is to do something physical to move out of the worrying head. For example, a run through the park, a pick-up game of basketball, or bicycling through the neighborhood can help release pent-up emotions.
Ritual is another way to create meaning and provide some closure. For children dealing with death and trauma, one ritual uses helium balloons (hopefully, the biodegradable types). Have your child draw a picture or write some words honoring someone who has died or as a prayer of hope for someone in bad place. This can be done on the balloon itself or a small piece of paper. In a mindful way, allow your child to release the balloon honoring the loved one. This is a lovely healing ritual that has been most successful with smalls and very effective in allowing the children to let go in a natural way.
One Newtown little boy who lost way too many friends wanted to do something. He took one of his school pictures and wrote on the back of the picture how much he liked playing with his now-deceased friend. This sweet boy taped a small cross to the picture and asked his mom to give this to his classmate’s mom. This little guy intuitively knew the best thing to do for himself and his friend’s mom.
When tragedy strikes, we want to do s-o-m-e-t-h-i-n-g. The heartache of tragedy strikes a universal chord. We ache to be of service, to help in any way; we want to help lessen the pain and make it better and, of course, ironically, this helps lessen our own pain and confusion. Sometimes, we cannot help directly, but we can help where it is needed in our own back yard. Good deeds are good deeds. There are no boundaries or delineations in spreading good energy and light. Helping one person helps us all. Spread the light wherever you are. It always makes a difference.
7. You need to feel to heal.
Quite simply, if we don’t let our heavier feelings move through us, we remain stuck. Whatever the feeling – anger, rage, sadness, despair – give your child permission to express it. This is not the time for stiff upper lips and “Don’t be a crybaby” admonitions. This is the time to draw, act it out, have conversations with via stuffed animals, and the like.
Grief and sadness move in waves. Everyone has their own internal timing. Give your child permission to be just as he is. There is no right or wrong in this process. However, if there is protracted lack of sleep, nightmares, refusal to eat, etc., seek professional help. You never have to go through this alone.
There are a number of books specifically written for grieving children. Three books that I can recommend are Grief is Like a Snowflake and The Ant Hill Disaster by the prolific children’s writer, Julia Cook – she is a great resource and has books on depression, anxiety, bullying, making friends, etc. and directly helped some Newtown families — and Mortimer Loses a Friend by Diana deRegnier.
8. Remember to say “I love you.” When said with meaning, those three words are filled with light. And amidst the darkness, we need to embrace the light.
One of the Sandy Hook teachers huddled in a closet with some of her students during the rampage; she repeatedly told her kids, “I love you.” She wanted her students to know of her love and for those to possibly be the last words they ever heard.
One of the signs in Newtown said it best. It read: “We are the people of Newtown. We choose love.”
And, of course, that is what we all choose for our children, for our loved ones, and, when we are ready, for everyone who shares our Earth home. We choose love.
©Adele Ryan McDowell