The only thing worse than living through these unstable and tumultuous times, with what seems like security threats around every corner; is being a parent while living through these times and having to juggle our own fears while trying to explain things we don’t really understand to our children.
As a parent, our natural instinct is to protect our children from the dangers of the world, and to keep them as happy and innocent for as long as possible. But what happens when reality hits and affects us all, children and adults alike? We might think that our fake smile covers up any and all evil, but children are young, not stupid, and they hear things and see things and feel things; and sometimes the “shield” can do more harm than good.
When is the right time to explain to our children that the “boogie man” does exist, but that he comes in a very different form from what they’ve imagined? And how do we have this conversation without giving them nightmares and anxiety for the rest of their lives?
As awful as it might sound to have this difficult kind of talk, think of how much worse it would be for your child to learn about these terrible things from someone else, or to have their imagination run amok…
About 2-years ago there was an active war where my family was living. My daughter was 5-years-old and my boys were 3-years-old. There were more than a few nights my husband and I had to grab our 3 kids at 2/3/4am and had exactly 60-seconds from when the national alarm siren began to get from our apartment to the building’s bomb shelter – a few floors down. After the first time, we of course prepared an “emergency bag” by the door filled with games, ipad and snacks to grab on the way out; but no matter how “prepared” we were, and how many smiles, songs and toys we brought with us; when that alarm goes off, your heart drops. Having seen and loved the movie “Life is Beautiful”, I thought that we would live through this without having to give a real explanation of anything, it was an “adventure”, a “game” we were playing – and when things calmed down a bit I thought we had managed to ‘dodge the bullet’.
When my 5-year-old daughter came back home after her first day back at pre-school, she was very upset. She told me that they did a practice run to the school’s bomb shelter and heard that every time the alarm went off it meant “people are trying to kill us and we have to run to the shelter.” She was obviously very upset and confused; and it broke my heart. I felt upset with the school, with the situation, but most of all with myself; because I hadn’t given her any understanding of what was actually happening beforehand and she now had these horrible images and ideas that had been implanted in her head by other children.
I went into damage control mode immediately. We had a long conversation, read and talked about stories like Mulan, and Aladdin and even Peter Pan. Anything I could think of that had some kind of war or fighting sequence that would make the visual a little more familiar and a little less intimidating to her. We drew lots of pictures, and I asked her to draw the people she was scared of, the ones “trying to kill us”. She asked me LOTS of questions, LOTS, and I didn’t pretend to know all the answers, but we discussed them all, and I did my best to convey that no matter what happened, her father and I would always do everything we could to protect her and her brothers. My 5-year old daughter had been really worried, and it was not all from that one day back in pre-school, these were fears and questions that she had been pondering for a while but was too afraid to ask. She had been hiding her own fears and confusion behind games and smiles, just as her father and I had been.
Obviously every child and situation is different, and it’s very personal, but as parents we need to be extra sensitive so that we don’t leave our kids wondering alone in the dark.
Would you watch a violent rated R movie with your 4-year-old? I will assume not, but for some reason we are less concerned about discussing that same movie in front of the 4-year old, or leaving the news on in front of our children when hearing about a bombing at a train station or music concert or something awful. Yet if and when they ask about it, many of us ‘shush them’ and don’t really give an answer – probably because we ourselves don’t know the answers and aren’t ready for the question.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry gives more of a step-by-step guide and tips on how to handle this situation that many have found helpful, including me.
The world has always been full of dangers and war is unfortunately nothing new, however this is not an easy time for anyone. There are new technologies popping up daily we don’t know how to use, and with them new problems we don’t even know about. We are not really free to talk or say anything for fear of being too liberal, not liberal enough, offending someone, or who knows what… Add to that the rise in terror worldwide, racism, economic crisis, the unreliable media and more and more and more. Things feel completely out of control…
It’s overwhelming and feels impossible for us to process it all – but our children are watching, they are watching US, and they are listening to US – especially in those moments when we think they aren’t. And we need to make sure we don’t cast them aside and pretend it’s fine because “they don’t understand”, because “not understanding” many times is worse and creates even more fear and anxiety.
I will end this on a quote I recently came across: “If we don’t teach our children to love, someone else will teach them to hate”; but we also need to teach our children how to process their negative and confused feelings so that they don’t end up turning them into something dangerous and destructive to themselves or to others. We need to remove the blindfold from our own eyes so that we can guide our children properly through this new world.