What About The Kids?
The terror attack in Orlando has once again demonstrated that there is violence, horrific and lethal violence in this world. It has also demonstrated that we do not know where and when this violence will erupt. Night club, school, mall, movie theater – it could be anywhere.
Tragic events such as the one in Orlando can trigger anxieties and elevate fears. For those who are parents, the anxiety and fear can be multiplied because of the love we have for our children and the responsibility we have to keep our children safe.
Certainly Orlando deserves our compassion and our concern, but does it deserve our fear? Should we lock up our kids to keep them safe from the world?
The answer is a resounding, “no!”
Here are a few things to consider when dealing with yourself and your children in light of the Orlando terror attack.
Calm Presence. First, what you need from yourself is the same thing your children need from you – a calm presence. When you are calm it demonstrates to your children that they are safe, that there is nothing to worry about. Your calm presence lets your children know that even though there are bad things that happen in this world, nothing bad is going to happen to them. Right here; right now – they are safe.
Assess Exposure. Second, determine how much of this story your children have been exposed to. Have they watched hours of television news stories? Listened to repeated loops on the radio? Do they have access to other devices and social media? How much have they talked with their friends about this? Knowing your child’s exposure level to the story can help to guide how much to engage with them. The younger the child is the less likely they have had some exposure to the story. For example, if a young child (under the age of 6) has not had any exposure to the story, then let it pass. There is no real need to bring up such terrible things to a child so young.
Engage At Their Level. Third, if your do engage your child, make sure to engage at their level. When a three year old asks, “why did this happen?” it is a very different question than a 15 year old asking the same question. All a three year old may need to know is that “sometimes there are bad things that happen in the world, but the good news is that you are safe here with me and …. (list other safe adults).” A teenager may need a deeper and more developed conversation. But no matter the age of your child, when you have a calm presence with them it communicates safety. Your calm curiosity about what they know is a good soft start up for a conversation of this kind. A good rule of thumb is to say as little as you have to and as much as you need to. Overtalking the topic gives the story more power than it deserves and can create anxiety rather than resolve it.
Assess Symptoms. Fourth, sometimes events such as these can trigger anxiety in children. What parents need to be looking for is a change in pattern of the child’s behavior, not one off instances. For example, if the child indicates being afraid one time, that calls for attending to their concerns, but is not a mental health concern. If, however, the child begins a pattern of irritability, being withdrawn or has endless worrisome thoughts that cannot be resolved with calm attention over time, then that might be something to check into. Again, overreacting at this point only makes matters worse, not better. If your calm engagement over time and maintaining the normal and everyday routine does not resolve the new pattern of behavior, a check in with a family therapist would be worthwhile (for younger children a play therapist would be good).
Some parents might find their young children introducing some parts of the Orlando story into their own play. This is actually normal, not a symptom of anxiety. A child’s mother tongue is play, not words. Thus, how a conversation functions for an adult is how play functions for a child. In most cases, the tragic topic will enter into play and then exit as quickly as it entered – just like one conversation moves to the next with adults. Only if the content of the play persists over time and gets progressively more violent and does not resolve should there be any concern.
Boundaries. Finally, managing your own concern, anxieties, and fears is essential. Your child should not serve as your conversation partner about tragedies such as these. Using your child as a sounding board or conversation partner can result in the adultification or parentification of your children. In short, what this means is that you ask your child to perform an adult role with you for your benefit, not theirs. As a parent, it is your responsibility to have adult level conversations with adults and to relieve your anxieties with another adult who can meet them head on equipped with adult maturity. Children are not equipped to do that, even if they are fully willing to enter into it.
Even though the terror attack in Orlando is tragic and terrible and deserves our compassion, it does not mean we must become afraid. In fact, the most powerful response to terror is calmness, the kind of calmness that results in peace within yourself and peace between people. Terror is designed to remove calmness; therefore, calmness in the face of terror is the most powerful and subversive response. It is also the most healthy way to parent your children.