From mass shootings to police brutality to terrorist attacks, our news cycle is filled with one grim story after another. It’s difficult for most adults to digest, let alone our children. Rather than try to process all of this alone, I decided to ask a professional therapist to share some advice on how to talk to your children about tragic current events.
As I’ve grappled with my own feelings about the current state of violence and race relations, I’ve also struggled with how much information to share with my daughter. I don’t want to shield her from what’s happening in our world, but how much truth about these horrific acts is too much?
To answer that question and a few more, I reached out to Dr. Kenya Coleman. Dr. Coleman is a Clinical Social Worker and Dr. of Clinical Psychology specializing in Child and Adolescent Psychology. During our chat, she shared 6 tips on how to talk to your children about tragic current events.
1. Address the elephant in the room
It’s going to be a challenge to talk to your children about what they’ve been seeing and hearing without discussing racism and discrimination. Explaining racism to children can be especially hard. It can leave them feeling ashamed and embarrassed and leave parents feeling uncomfortable. Rather than shy away from such a sensitive subject, Dr. Coleman suggests that you have an honest age appropriate conversation about it. “You can start by saying, ‘There was a time when many people were not as informed about how treating others unfairly because they were different was wrong. And even though education and experience has taught us better, some people are still holding on to old beliefs which cause them to behave badly and make poor decisions that hurt people.’ ”
But more importantly, Dr. Coleman says you should stress to your children that they should never question who they are as a person based on what other’s say or think about them. “They should never own anyone else’s ignorance,” says Dr. Coleman. Curious, I asked for an example of what that might look like. “Questioning whether they are stupid, or for children of color, not embracing their features like their hair or skin color,” she explained.
2. Limit what they see and hear
The widespread use of smartphones has allowed so many violent and unlawful acts to be caught on tape. Dr. Coleman warns against viewing these images on television or online as they can be overwhelming. “Each time you watch one of these videos, you are being vicariously traumatized,” says Dr. Coleman. And because these graphic images are continuously played, it can appear that the events are happening over and over again, which can cause even more anxiety and fear. Dr. Coleman suggests turning off the news and keeping a close eye on what your children view on television and online. Then you can explain the events through a filtered lens that the media does not provide.
While you can control what goes on at home, once you step outside, it’s a different story. It’s nearly impossible to prevent children from hearing chatter about current events in line at the supermarket, at the park, or at a family gathering. Dr. Coleman says that before you head out, remind your children that they might hear people saying things that you don’t agree with. “Explain that people will share their opinions about what happened but opinions aren’t facts,” says Dr. Coleman. Encourage them to come to you when they hear things that make them anxious or uncomfortable so you can discuss it together.
3. Be honest about your feelings
The lives lost during recent tragic events have left me feeling sad, tired, angry and scared. Because I have been so emotional, my daughter has caught me once (or twice) yelling at the television or having an animated discussion about race relations with her dad. Instead of brushing it under rug, Dr. Coleman says you should be honest about your feelings. “Acknowledge that you got carried away and why you are so upset,” explained Dr. Coleman. “As parents we don’t have to be perfect, we have to be honest.” (P.S. I’m sooo writing another post to expand on this seriously profound parenting statement!)
4. See Color
When people say they don’t see color, it implies that we are all the same. But actually, we are all quite different. Different colors. Different religions. Different sexual orientations. Different cultures. Instead of telling children we are all the same, we should be telling them to embrace our differences. Each of us tells our story through a very unique lens. Dr. Coleman believes that we are all better off when we are open-minded and willing to consider different perspectives.
5. Become a change agent
When talking to children about tragic events, they will often want to know how they can help. Dr. Coleman says that you can empower them by helping them figure out ways they can make a difference. It could be as simple as making a sympathy card for the family of a victim of violence or making a donation to an organization that supports a cause they care about. When my daughter heard about the water crisis in Flint, she decided to collect donations for water filters in lieu of birthday gifts. Her kind act not only helped families in Flint, but also educated her friends and empowered them to make a difference.
6. Give them some extra TLC
Reassure your children that your number one priority is to protect them and that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. Pay attention to changes in mood and keep the lines of communication open. Dr. Coleman suggests letting your children lead the conversation by asking them what they know about the situation and how they feel about it. And a few extra mommy and daddy hugs and kisses wouldn’t hurt:)
You can learn more about Dr. Kenya Coleman here.