parenting for sanity

I joined the Brownie Scouts in first grade. It was 1972. I got my little uniform, my sash, took my pledge, and was awarded two badges in a special Brownie Scout ceremony. It was exciting to be part of a beehive of girls buzzing with activities. Autumn rolled around and with it came fundraising time. Yup, selling Girl Scout Cookies. The tradition then was to sell them door-to-door. Girls typically went alone or in teams of two or three girls – but then you had to compete for sales.

That’s the year it happened. My childhood safety bubble was forever burst. Two Girl Scouts, a couple of years older than I, had gone out selling cookies together. They disappeared. Their bodies were found some days later. They had been raped and murdered. I heard about it from some of the older girls at school. It was terrifying news. I left the Brownies and never rejoined. I don’t think I ever told my mom why, and she never asked or put two and two together.

My first exposure to death was even earlier. I was in kindergarten when my cousin Harriet, 16 years old, slipped down the icy front steps of her high school, hit the back of her head and slipped into a coma. She died several days later. Harriet and I were close. Though she was more than 10 years older than I, she was born with congenital dwarfism so was about my height. I thought she was the coolest girl – ever.  The news of her accident was delivered matter-of-factly when I came in the door from school: “She slipped, fell, hit her head, went to sleep, and never woke up again.” That was all the explanation I received. Needless to say, going to sleep was scary for a while.

As a mother I can honestly say that I wanted my children to live with the belief – even the illusion – that the world is a safe place. That you can talk to strangers. That people are good, and kind. My kids were born at home, breastfed, and slept in a family bed. They were homeschooled. I did not want them to remain forever sheltered from knowing the realities of the world, but I wanted them to be free of those worries when they were young. Yes, I wanted, to some extent to shelter them. To protect their innocence.

Before they were even out of their elementary school ages, there was the Oklahoma City bombing. Then the massacre at Columbine. They heard about these from friends and on the radio. Then along came the child abductor in our very own sleepy little suburban neighborhood. One day a man in a white car pulled up to the school bus stop across the street from our house. He waited for the last kid to get off the bus, pulled up beside him, and offered him a video game if he’d get in the car. The ‘stranger danger’ talk had, thankfully, worked on this kid, and he ran screaming all the way home. The man was apprehended. Then, some years later, in our own small Connecticut town, Jennifer Petit and her two daughters were gruesomely murdered, in their home, leaving everyone in our town traumatized, especially the teenaged girls. Our daughters slept on our bedroom floor for weeks. Shortly after my oldest 2 kids got to college, I felt a sense of relief, an “Ahhh, they’ve made it safely,” moment. They were, in fact, each living on college campuses when the Virginia Tech massacre occurred and I realized that as a parent, the worrying never ends.

We all experience that singular moment when we realize we cannot protect our children from exposure to and experiencing the dangers and grief of the world. That the only certainty we have is that we are wearing our hearts outside our bodies, in the form of our kids.

We know that anything can happen. And, as we saw in Sandy Hook, it does. Violence, ugly, random, terrifying violence that is so tempting to call evil, shakes the world.

Our hearts ache for those whose suffering we can barely comprehend while simultaneously, inside we give thanks to whatever higher, inner, or outer power  — or just damned luck — it was it that it wasn’t our child. All the while knowing, that it could have been. Because things like the Sandy Hook school massacre, or the Denver movie theater shooting, or 9-11 actually do happen.They happen and we have to find a way to restore balance in the universe for our children when they do. We have to find a way to reduce the inevitable anxiety of living in a world where such horrible things happen.

My husband and I tried to find a careful balance between giving our children a sense of safety and the belief that people are generally good, and enough information to keep them safe, without making them overly anxious. But there’s just no way to have “the safety talk” with kids without conveying some level of anxiety. Bad things do happen, and our kids need enough information to know how to avoid danger, and if faced with it, how to respond.

Like you, I have had to deeply consider how to talk with my children about violence, tragedy, fear, and death. It is always difficult. Too often, the conversation is forced upon us, and our kids, before any of us are ready, as happened with Sandy Hook. We all lose our innocence and a little more sense of safety in the world. Violence against any child is truly violence against all children.

So what do we do when tragedy strikes? When violence happens? Should our children be told? At what age? How? When? Where? By whom? As my oldest daughter said to me today, I think there is a balance that many parents are searching to find, how to be honest with their kids about what happened (in Sandy Hook) without making them paranoid and fearful from a young age. Yes, we are, my wise daughter. And we too, are trying not to be fearful and paranoid, so this makes it even tougher. We just want to hold you close, until you are in your 40s, keep you near and safe, fill you with the knowledge that you are loved, that life is good, that all good things will happen for you. We want to shelter you yet have you grow up wise, worldly, unsheltered, tolerant, compassionate. We want you to grow up sane. We want you to be able to grow up…

For better or worse, media is everywhere, so most likely, if there is something big and bad going on in the world, your kids are going to find out from someone, if not you. Even your little kids in kindergarten. Even if they go to Waldorf schools or small neighborhood homeschool groups. Here are suggestions I can share based on my experiences as a physician, midwife, and mother, for helping to keep our kids emotionally safe and sane, when sharing the news from what can seem like an insane world.

• If you have pre-school aged children, they are most likely to be spared from hearing the headlines, and to be too young to comprehend what’s going on. So unless pre-school aged kids bring something up to you, I wouldn’t bring bad news from the media up to them. If there is a threat, like someone unsafe in the neighborhood, it’s our job to watch them like a hawk, not scare them with warnings.

• By kindergarten kids are more likely to start to have a sense of it when things are going on. Kids hear the news through media, though other kids with older siblings, through kids who are on Facebook. From school friends, other relatives, through teachers. So the best thing to do is talk first – let them hear scary news from you. Say a little at first, casually introduce the subject to ascertain whether they’ve heard, and listen to what your child has to say. Sometimes the best way to broach a subject is simply to ask them what’s going on at school…what are the other kids talking about? If they bring something up to you, for example, “Mommy, a bad man hurt kids in another school,” clear your calendar for the next little while, be completely present, and gently inquire as to what they’ve heard and know. You can then use your judgment about what you need to say next.

• You may need to clear up misconceptions. Dispel any myths that you can. Kids play telephone with information and heck, even the New York Times doesn’t always get the details right. Perhaps, for example,  your child heard that the teacher or principal hurt or shot children… this would then be an unnecessarily terrifying burden for your child to carry to school everyday! Try to learn as much detail about what they think they know as possible so you can clear up scary ideas that are simply inaccurate.

• By all means, minimize your own child’s sense of personal risk and danger by offering reassurances. To do this you will first have to calm your own fears. Yes, another horrible incident can happen. Your child does not need to think about this. Let your child know she is safe. The person who did the damage was caught, etc.

• Listen carefully and openly to your child’s fears. Her ideas may seem, well, childish or outlandish, but remember how vivid is a child’s imagination. Again, dispel myths and offer reassurances, don’t belittle. Listen and keep the communication channels open – and going both ways.

• Be careful to avoid saying things that have the potential to be scary to kids, especially when explaining death. While to adults, equating death with a peaceful sleep may seem comforting, to a child this is practically a sure recipe for insomnia. Similarly, saying someone went on a long trip and they are never coming home can leave a child with fears of abandonment. If you are faith-based, telling your child that God needs more angels can be terrifying, leaving your child wondering whether he or she is next. Be careful with euphemisms in general, as their interpretation is only limited by imagination – and kids’ imaginations can go wild.

• If a close relative dies of an illness, carefully discuss this with your child in an age appropriate way, in order to ascertain any fears of misconceptions about the illness that your child may be harboring; for example, if grandma had a lot of headaches and died of cancer, your child might be afraid he or she will also die of cancer if she/he has a headache. Headaches are common even with a fever and common cold yet this could be terrifying to your child!

• Let your child know that you will always be there for him, through thick and in, in his life and in his heart – that he can ALWAYS call on your strength, your bond; that you will always love him, no matter what!

• In the event of a public and violent tragedy, such as occurred in Sandy Hook this past week, there is often a welling of public emotion, some of it related to the incident, some of it people’s own stuff just coming up. Your child, too, may experience a wide and unexpected range of emotions, from sadness to fear to anger to confusion. He or she may also not be as affected by it as you, and that’s ok, too. Offer to talk and listen, and make the time to do so if your child takes you up on the offer.

• Create a family meeting over dinner or at a quiet time in the event of a tragedy, where you just open the floor to anyone who wants to talk about the events. You don’t even have to say much. Just make it feel safe and comfortable to talk. Have tea or hot cocoa, a quiet, uninterrupted environment, and just be there to “hold space” for your family members. Offer an inspirational, reassuring, or uplifting reading, poem or prayer to close the gathering.

• To overcome fear and helplessness, teach your child a technique that is spiritually comforting and consistent with your values and beliefs. For example, she can imagine herself surrounded in protective light, he can say a small affirmation, prayer or mantra that is calming, or can even visualize sending love, healing light, or kind thoughts to the victims as a way to feel engaged, involved, and less helpless, or she can put together a box or scrapbook or memorabilia of a loved one to hold onto and cherish the closeness of the person they will miss.

• Encourage open grieving and displays of emotions, even anger.

• Keep a close eye on your kids after a tragedy or loss; kids can internalize and externalize emotions in self-injurious and counterproductive ways. They may display dysfunction or maladjustment in their behavior. Should this occur, please seek professional support in your community.

• Try to remember, and remind your child, that there are so many more good and healthy people in the world than those who commit atrocities. If possible, try to extend compassion for all of those involved, and not lay blame or vilify. Intellectually, your child may not understand the complexities and nuances of issues such as mental health problems, gun control, and other topics that arise. This is a great opportunity to teach and share, and to raise a generation of thoughtful, compassionate, resilient young people. Remember, even in the most horrible tragedy, even the worst actor is someone’s child, parent, husband, or wife. We can never know the full truth of what drives people to horrible acts. We do not need to like anyone, we can even feel anger or hatred in the moment, but teach compassion and understanding as the overarching message.

• Finally, it’s ok not to have all the answers, and to let your child know this. You can always offer comfort and support, and you can explore ideas together, without having the answers to life’s mysteries and deepest questions.

• And let’s remember, the world really is mostly a good place. Most people are good people, good neighbors.

15 Comments

  1. We call it the Safety Talk. So we focus on the real goal there — safety. And what we say is this: most people are nice, but a very small number of people are not nice. And because of that we don’t talk to people we don’t know unless we are with a trusted grown up. We talk exactly about how you don’t say anything but just turn and walk or run away, to trusted grownups, if any stranger talks to you. We talk about how, after that, the trusted grownup will help you decide if we should go back and talk to that stranger or not. We explain that the nice strangers are ok with kids running off, because they understand that we are all being careful about the few strangers who are not nice. This to me is a way to share but not freak out about the world. And it a preface for eventually discussing when one of the not nice people takes an action in the world. Even then, we can remind that most people are nice and that precautions can usually keep you safe.

    • We love the Safety Kids series from Brite Music! Both my husband and I still remember these from when we were young, so I know they work. Now we use them with our own children. They are a wonderful resource for teaching the principles of personal safety without causing unnecessary anxiety. The songs are catchy and the principles are taught in a tasteful and memorable way. We love to recommend them to friends and family.

      Here is a link to the digital set, including samples of the audio:

      http://www.britemusic.com/safety-kids-set-digital

      (We have no vested interest in this company, we are just happy customers.)

  2. Thank You so very much for this and just taking the time to do. You can always add more to my inbox anytime you’d like! Thanks again.

  3. I too am grateful to you for sharing your thoughts. I am particularly grateful for your insights about how you raised your children. I was at my grandmother’s funeral last week when all this happened (the only grandparent I have ever known and I was supposed to visit her last week but too late). I briefly heard the news via a relative’s iphone, too much, too much (so did my 8 year old son as a matter of fact). I sent my children off to school today worried about what they would be exposed to at school but have since been reassured by email contact with their teachers about how the schools are handing these events (I was worried about too much discussion about the tragedies, too much dwelling, my older boys are very sensitive, more so than their younger sister). It is reassuring to learn that someone I admire greatly (that would be you) has already raised her children and your advice aligns with my instincts but also goes beyond that as you share your many experiences as a mother that I can learn from. My children are still young, only ages almost 2 to 8 years. My values don’t always align with my family’s which is fine by me but sometimes a challenge for them (meaning the family I grew up in). I am grateful to benefit from the sharing of your experiences as a parent, your guidance so to speak.

  4. Thank you for your wise words, Dr. Aviva. I appreciated you saying we want to keep them protected into their 40’s. It’s true, the concern does not dissipate when they hit some particular age. I too am a midwife and mother, and currently in medical school. My children are 25 and 28 – my oldest was shot and killed when he was 16 (and they were 11 and 8), when the fast food place he was working at was robbed at gunpoint. When something like the school shooting in Conneticut happens it first hits my emotions as I remember what it is like as a parent for the police to tell you that your child has been killed. My heart breaks for the parents of the children. Then I worry about how my son and daughter will weather this. We talk – by phone these days as we are in different cities. My daughter brings up how she felt after the Columbine shooting, and Virginia Tech, and when she heard about this -comparing the painfulness of each. We all feel, I think, an added connection to such events that I wish could be banished. But what we’ve also learned is to share those feelings with one another. The best way to help them continue to face their lives with courage and compassion is to be free to talk to each other about painful events – current and memories. And to be able to trust that we can always talk to each other about them. Establishing that dialogue of comfort and support is the most important thing we need to do as parents to help our children become wise and heart-whole adults.

    • Dear Sisters,
      Thank you all for your kindness in sharing your experiences with me and this community of readers. Licia, I am so moved that you had the courage and generosity to share this story. I am just so sorry that you had to go through this. I know there are some things that time never truly heals, though we go on, particularly when we have other children. Your strength is beyond my comprehension, even, and I just thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and story with us. Love, Aviva.

  5. Aviva, You really are a godsend for all of us women and mamas! What a thoughtful, constructive and comforting article. As a mama, I found myself sobbing on Friday for the grief and fear that this event struck in me. As a parent these days, it’s becoming so hard not to start walking through life gripped in fear, but what a horrible way to live. The balanced perspective and faith in mankind that you offer was so helpful to me. Thank you.

  6. Dear Aviva,
    Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge , insight, and stories on this horrific subject with all of us. You have such a special gift and we are truly blessed to be the recipients of it. I have shared this information with all of my friends and relatives who have children and grandchildren so that they can better be able to talk to them about what happened at Sandy Hook. Let us keep all of the innocent victims and their families in our prayers.

    • Thank you so much. I really struggled with my instinct to write. It seemed anything would seem trite compared to what happened. My oldest daughter pushed me to share. I am so glad you found it of value. Thank you for taking the time to let me know. Thank you to all of you for sharing your lives with me.

  7. Dear Aviva,
    thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing this. I really struggled (as a new parent) with both how to accept that my children will be exposed to these news (or worse) and how to learn to process these events in a kind and compassionate way knowing that what I learn will be taught and passed onto my children.

    I really feel better after reading your article and I wish to thank you for the encouragement you gave us (as human beings AND as parents) and the suggestions on how to bring these topics to the table and deal with their emotions.

    Sincerely,
    Alex.

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