Talking to Children About Crisis

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Talking to children about crisis is hard. We have some suggestions and lots of resources to help you bring your children into the conversation.

I’ve lived and worked in Orlando, Florida, for more than a decade and within 90 minutes to the left or right of the city in the years prior. My entire life has been spent hugging the mid-section of this state I’m proud to call home.

We don’t need to talk about what happened here over the weekend. You know, and you’re probably as confused and horrified by it as we are. And while I could write for days about what it’s like to be a resident of the town where the most recent mass shooting has happened, I won’t. Instead I want to talk about being a parent living in the town where the most recent mass shooting has happened.

Before Sunday, when things like this would happen somewhere else, my first thought was always “how do I talk to my children about this?” I’d usually think about it, cringe, decide they’re too young, and make the decision to not talk about it.

There seem to be two general schools of thought around bringing kids into very adult discussions like this: shield them from the evil while you can, or start the conversations early to control the message and teach some basic safety and awareness. I see the advantages of both sides. We have always defaulted to shielding our kids (my girls think the bad guys won’t come to our house because we own a pug and bad guys are scared of pugs). Yup, clearly Team Shield over here.

Talking to children about crisis is hard. We have some suggestions and lots of resources to help you bring your children into the conversation.

But it’s easy to pick your approach when the crisis is somewhere else. When your town is the one that is living through the horrific events and your town is the backdrop on the Today Show and the President is headed to your town—well, then things may not go as planned. I’ve had friends who intended to shield their children only to have those children come home from school, camp, aftercare, or a friends house asking why a man shot people. I’ve had friends who planned to be open and bring their children into the discussion suddenly unsure how to even start the conversation now that it involves people they know. Like every other aspect of parenting, you can’t predict how you’ll respond until you’re there. We need to be prepared to change direction as needed.

Whether you’re Team Shield or Team Inform right now, we will all need to bring our children into the conversation at some point. We will watch as their eyes grow big while their brains begin to comprehend that the bad guys can still get us…pug owner or not.

Pro tips for talking to children about crisis

So how do we do it? What do we say? I’m no child psychologist, but I am lucky enough to be friends with one through WMAG. So our own Kristi Blust sent me a bunch of great information on the topic and we thought it might be helpful to combine some suggestions and resources so that as parents we aren’t tackling these conversations on our own.

  • Be first—own the message: If you don’t tell them about it someone else will, especially with major events where news travels increasingly fast. Telling them something has happened, using age-appropriate language, allows you to control the message and set the tone for the discussion. Being the one breaking the news to your children also allows you to show them how your family prefers to respond to crisis. So after talking about what happened, you can talk to them about volunteering to help, collecting supplies or donations, or praying for those involved.
  • Be mindful of your energy: Children read emotion and energy long before they read words and books. You want them to focus on what you’re saying and not get lost in your energy or emotion. You are likely rattled on the inside and overwhelmed with emotions, but for the sake of the conversation with your child, be calm momma—you’ve got this.
  • Be present: These are big conversations. Don’t try to fit this into a car ride home or on the way to baseball practice. Be present, have time available to talk, look them in the eyes. Put your phone away, turn off the television, be present. Be sure they know you’re available for more conversations and to answer more questions.
  • Speaking of turning off the television, unplug: I know, this is big news and we all have questions and the news media is one commercial break from uncovering one more new thing…but turn it off. Stepping away from the constant media coverage will allow you to breathe again and will allow your child to start processing what you’ve talked about. This article about how much news coverage children can handle says it well: “It’s important to take a break, to turn away from the coverage. Sometimes this is easier said than done. We do know that new information can be infrequent; continuing to watch replays of the same information is not helpful. Turning the news off does not mean we feel any less sad for what has happened, but it does mean that we are taking steps to limit our exposure and increase our resilience and the resilience of our children to cope in the face of difficult situations.”
  • Lastly, expect your child to have a heightened sense of fear: It’s totally normal. I mean, I certainly have a heightened sense of fear right now. Show them the volunteers, the charitable donations, and all of the good that’s happening. Show them that the number of kind people far outweigh the number of bad people and then find a way to be part of the good with them.

Here are some trustworthy resources to help:

The razor-thin line of love and hate

I can't imagine going in to have my baby full of anticipation and joy and then having to adjust my birth plan to account for a mass-shooting 0.4 miles away.

Just 0.4 miles from the Pulse nightclub is Winnie Palmer Hospital, the premier Orlando hospital for women and babies. Not only is having a baby at Winnie like having a baby at the JW Marriott, Winnie is also home to one of the best NICU’s in the Southeast. I had both of my girls at that hospital and remember specifically how breathtaking the views of our city beautiful are from the hospital rooms. I simply can’t imagine the fear the new moms, the NICU moms, the nurses, doctors, and staff must have felt watching this unfold from the windows at Winnie Palmer. I can’t imagine going in to have my baby full of anticipation and joy and then having to adjust my birth plan to account for a mass-shooting 0.4 miles away.

This juxtaposition is not lost on me. The evilness and anger of a horrific event happening just 2,000 feet away from the pure innocence and love that is the birth of a new baby. A baby who will one day grow up and have to learn what a mass-shooting is. This is heavy stuff people. Parenting in this new world is hard.

Other parents, how are you handling this? For those not under the black cloud that is Orlando right now, what advice do you have to help us move forward?

#prayfororlando

Stephanie Tsales

Stephanie is a Senior Director at a Higher Education company. She's also a runner, a music maven, a pug enthusiast, a wine drinker, and a momma bear.

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