I have an 8-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. On Friday, like parents across the country, I was shaken. I spent part of the day reading tips about how to talk to children about "scary news."
Friday afternoon, my son went to a birthday party. I figured he would not hear anything about the shootings. But it was my daughter I worried about. She watches ESPN religiously after school, and I knew there would be some mention of the tragedy. I wanted to be the one who told her about what had happened.
By the time I reached her, I was too late; she'd already heard. But she seemed oddly unaffected, leaving me conflicted. I was glad she wasn't worried, but concerned that she seemed so unmoved.
Then I caught KJ Dell-Antonia's blog yesterday in the New York Times Motherlode column.
First, Dell-Antonia argued for saying nothing, especially to younger children. After all, she wrote, "A child whose television comes from Disney and whose primary use of a mobile device involves throwing birds at pigs may not be inundated with information in the ways we fear."
Parents must look at their own feelings, Dell-Antonia continued, and address whether you are talking to your children for them -- or for yourself. It's in situations like this that a parent's self-awareness is most important, as Nancy Rappaport, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of school-based programs for the Cambridge Health Alliance explained in Motherlode:
“If you’re feeling panicked, and like there’s no place safe in the world, then that’s a good time to step back and get those thoughts in order,” Dr. Rappaport suggested. “But if we try to wait until we’ve fully come to terms with something like this, then we’ll never be able to talk. In fact, we’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
She brought up a strategy that’s commonly used for anxiety in children: “worried thought, brave thought.” “We teach kids to counter a worried thought with a brave thought,” she said, and to “know that although the worried thought may come back, the brave thoughts are always there as well.” A worried thought might be “A shooter will come to my children’s school and there is nothing I can do about it,” with the brave counter “School shootings are still rare, and countless people are working to make them rarer still.”
But for the kids who are aware, but not obviously worried, Dell-Antonia included another great piece of insight:
“Most kids are pretty self-centered,” Nancy Rappaport [said]. “Some may be more vulnerable to these kinds of fears, but many may just say, ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ and move on.” This is a reaction that’s hard to understand for an adult, but fine, Dr. Rappaport said, for children whose focus is still naturally on themselves.
It turned out my daughter was not completely focused on herself after all. On Sunday at church, it rapidly became apparent that the sermon would be devoted to Newtown. My daughter looked at me, somewhat distressed, and said distinctly, "I don't want to hear this, Mommy. Can I wait in the back?"
I walked her to another part of the church where she could wait -- while adults in the sanctuary grieved.