Parents Need Support Now, Too.

candleOur TVs, radios, computers, cell phones, and personal interactions have been inundated with words and images about the horrific disaster in Connecticut last week. There are countless articles on the web for parents regarding how to help children cope, how to talk to children about the incident, and even how not to talk about it. Blogging about anything else this week seems trivial, yet I don’t want to just reiterate what’s already been written.

 

So, I’m going to start by sharing what happened in my own family…

 

My husband, Gavin, and I had heard about the shooting during the day on Friday. We both strongly believe in shielding our daughters from the news and we limit their television-watching to DVD's and commercial-free channels. In fact, as I mentioned here, I rarely watch the news at all due to the sensationalism and its negative effect on my psyche. Although we did not discuss it, Gavin and I shared an unspoken agreement that because it was developmentally inappropriate, we wouldn't bring up the tragedy with our girls. However, we would address it truthfully and succinctly if they somehow learned about it.

 

At 7am Monday morning, Gavin and Marissa, our 7-year-old, got in the car to go to school. Gavin turned the ignition switch and NPR’s “Morning Edition” was being broadcast on the radio. There was just enough time for the words “…Newtown Elementary School…” and “…killed 20 students and 7 adults…” to linger in the air before Gavin changed the station to some upbeat music. He looked in his rear view mirror to gauge Marissa’s expression, and was relieved when there seemed to be no sign of recognition on her face. She appeared to be absorbed in playing a game about horses on Gavin’s phone.

 

Gavin broke routine that morning by stopping at Starbucks for an iced coffee. On their way to the door, he and Marissa passed 2 elderly men sitting outside casually discussing “school violence.” Again, there was no indication that Marissa overheard anything, but Gavin was keenly aware of the conversation.

 

When they returned to the car, Gavin was just about to close Marissa’s door when she said, “You know, 27 people died at school today.”

 

Gavin’s heart skipped a beat. He leaned down to her level and asked, “Where did you hear that, honey?”

 

“On your radio,” she replied.

 

Gavin was astonished to learn that she actually had paid attention to the less-than-10-second snippet on the news. After all, he usually has to repeat himself a dozen times before she ever seems to hear him.

 

Gavin responded in all the ways recommended by The National Association of School Psychologists. He tried to reassure her that her school is a safe place. He validated her feelings of fear and confusion. He let her know that she can ask questions. He cautioned her about talking with her classmates who may not have heard about the tragedy, and told her to stick to discussing it with Mommy, Daddy, and the other trusted adults in her life.

 

It's impossible to know what went on inside her precious little head that morning or since. We can only hope that she'll feel safe enough to talk to us if she feels scared, and not dwell on thoughts that upset or terrify her. It's likely that in that moment, a bit of her innocence was crushed.

 

This story demonstrates how our kids pick up on things all the time and we are mostly unaware of it. When you are on the phone and your child is watching TV nearby, don’t assume he doesn’t hear what you are saying because he seems engrossed in his show. If you're going to watch the news, read articles on the Internet, or watch violent movies, do it when your kids are at school or asleep. Sometimes, even the most innocuous conversations are misinterpreted and blown out of proportion in the mind of a child.

 

Immediately following the shootings, all any parent wanted was to let their kids know how much they loved them and keep them close. This is logical and in many ways, important.

 

But please don’t overdo it.

 

No matter what words come out of your mouth, kids perceive your emotions and take their cues from you.

 

In the weeks leading up to my parents telling me that they were getting divorced (I was 11-years-old at the time), I vividly remember my father repeatedly saying, “You know I love you.  No matter what happens, I will always love you.” His constant declarations of love were so unsettling to me that I remember asking, “Why do you keep telling me that?” When he said, “Because it’s true,” I said, “Well, I know.  So please stop.” His words were affectionate, but I knew something was wrong just by the vibe he projected…and it frightened me. I remember thinking that he was going to die just from the way he told me would love me no matter what happened.

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I know a woman who seems exceptionally consumed with grief, anxiety, and anger since last Friday. She genuinely wants to protect her children from harm and distress, but I worry about how her fear and constant expression of anguish is unintentionally impacting her children (the very outcome she is trying to avoid).

 

When parents are anxious, as many are right now, they can become clingy and dependent on their children to satisfy their own emotional needs. The message they send is: In times of stress, the person you need most is unavailable because that person actually needs you.

 

Also, when parents get anxious, they can become intrusive and overprotective. In an attempt to feel under control, they try to force their kids to behave in certain ways, and end up interfering with the child’s ability to make independent choices. Again, the message here is: I need you to behave a certain way because it calms me down. I'm not in charge of myself.  You are in charge of me.

 

That can be pretty scary for a child.

 

Understandably, everyone is very concerned with the reactions of children to last week's events.  However, our emotional reactivity is higher when we feel stressed and overwhelmed.  In keeping with the ScreamFree principle, “Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First,” it's important to examine our own reactions to the incident at Sandy Hook Elementary and get support, if needed. Simply put, we can’t take care of our children if we don’t take care of ourselves first.

 

For the families affected by this unspeakable tragedy, my heart breaks for you. May you find the strength and support you need to keep putting one foot in front of the other, day by day.

 

If you're interested in reading more, a wonderful article on “How to Talk with Kids about the School Shooting” can be found here.

 

Please help continue the discussion by answering the following questions and leaving a comment below:

  • How has the tragedy in Newtown affected you and what are you doing to take care of yourself?
  • Have you talked about it with your child?
  • What was that experience like?

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