by Guest Author

by Jenni Brennan, LICSW

The day before my second son was born I sat in my hospital room, a place I had called home for nearly a week due to strict bed rest orders, and cried because I knew what it meant to have to share my child with the world. Tomorrow he would no longer be just mine. I would no longer be the only one who could feel him move and squirm and kick. I would no longer be the only one who knew him, really knew him. He would be part of the world and the world was a scary place. I desperately wanted to keep him in a bubble, shelter him, shield him from the bad stuff. I hadn’t had these same feelings with my first child but by the time my second delivery was upon me, I got it, I understood the scary stuff and I was not ready for another child to be exposed to all of it.

Fast forward almost 8 years and I find myself craving a bubble for both of my children more than ever. These days it seems like I am having a conversation with them about some devastating event at least weekly – terrorist attacks, racism, police shootings, riots, war – heavy stuff. Catchy hashtags fill our social media accounts, news alerts chime on our phones, we turn to live Reddit feeds for up to date information as the bad stuff unfolds and parents all over the world are having to say, once again, to their children: “There’s something we need to talk about.” Today’s children have to practice what to do in an active shooter situation in their school, review safety plans with parents should something happen while in public and process truly frightening information.

Lately it all feels overwhelming. Hopeless. Terrifying. At times it is too much for adults to handle and to process. For those of us as parents, it’s even more daunting because we have to find a way to paint a picture of hope for our children in the midst of so much hopelessness. We have to educate and protect our children but also smile and put on a happy face. We have to be their sunshine when finding the sunshine sometimes seems impossible. But how? I certainly do not have the answer. There is no magic elixir or magic wand. No secret rule book. I struggle on a daily basis to instill hope in my children and often when I lay my head on my own pillow, I second guess most of what I did that day. In those moments, I find myself reviewing a few key strategies that just might help us raise our children with hope; even when things feel hopeless.

1. Be Honest
As with most things, children know more than we think they do and they crave honest information. As much as I want to shelter my children from hearing about the bad things that happen, now that they are in school and in sports, this is simply not a reliable option. They can potentially overhear information from an adult or directly from another child in a number of locations. When parents make the decision to provide their children with honest information, there is better control over what and how specific information is shared with their children.

2. Watch What You Say
On the flip side, be mindful about what you say around children, not just around your own children, but when you are out in public. You don’t want to be that person who exposes another child to information their parents had not yet shared.

3. Consider Development
Children’s emotional and cognitive capacities develop significantly throughout their childhood. Before sharing details with them, take their developmental stage into consideration. A 12 year old will want and need more specific and detailed information than a 7 year old may need. Avoid going into too much detail or overwhelming them with details. Let them guide you on how much information they need.

4. Be a Role Model
Let’s face it, children learn a lot from watching their parents: the good, the bad and the ugly. Show your children that feelings like sadness are normal. If you are moved to tears, go ahead and cry. If you are angry, name it. Be sure to not only show your child that it is normal to feel emotions but also demonstrate acceptable ways for them to express those emotions. Avoid holding it all in and expressing it only when the children are not around. Let them in on the realness of feelings. You will be providing them a solid model for how to handle and manage life’s biggest challenges to come.

5. Reassure. Reassure. Reassure.
Children need to feel safe and the adults in their lives are the ones who are tasked with that monumental responsibility. I am not advocating for you to tell your children that nothing bad will happen to them or near them ever as that would be a lie. You cannot predict the future. You can, however, point out that good stuff happens far more often than the bad stuff. Remind children of all the people and systems in place to keep them safe. Reassure them that you would never knowingly put them in a dangerous situations. Highlight safety measures that are in place in they express fear over attending a certain event. Repeat as many times as necessary. When you think you’ve said it all enough, say it one more time.

6. Limit Media
Television news, social media accounts and newspapers now provide non-stop, around the clock coverage of every horrific event imaginable. Pictures, video, audio clips; it’s all out there and it can quickly become too much for children. Be mindful of what children may be exposed to and consider whether it is necessary. I recall hearing accounts from 9/11 that many children interpreted the frequent replay of the plane hitting the tower as multiple planes hitting multiple buildings day after day. Even if you think your children aren’t watching the news with you or don’t see the headlines on the newspaper, think about what they may overhear from the next room or what they may see when the newspaper is left casually on a kitchen table.

7. Create an Open Dialogue
Children need time to process things. It is not unusual for children to need days or even weeks to develop questions or be able to express their thoughts on difficult topics. Send your child the message that you can always find time to talk with them. Many parents have success by carving out time each night around bedtime for an opportunity for children to share their experiences, thoughts, feelings and ask questions. Some parents schedule weekly one-on-one parent/child dates at a coffee shop or fast food restaurant to connect. These conversations tend to be better received when they focus on one child at a time, rather than as a family dialogue with multiple children of various developmental stages.

8. Point Out the Positive.
Despite what we see on a daily basis, there are lots and lots of great things that happen locally, nationally and internationally. Seek out the good stuff and share it often with your children. Local newspapers can often be a more positive source of news, particularly for children. Highlighting the positives can also go a long way to helping children feel safe. No amount of the good stuff is too much!

9. Highlight Ways to Help
The feelings of powerlessness and helplessness often come hand in hand with feelings of hopelessness. One way to combat powerlessness and helplessness is to do something. Research local, national and international charities and causes you believe in. Get your children involved. Be creative. Help your child to feel like one person, one family can make a positive difference in the world. See what your children come up with – they may surprise you!

10. Monitor behavioral changes
Keep a watchful eye on your child’s behavior. Changes in sleeping and eating patterns may indicate that your child is having a hard time processing some events. Changes such as suddenly wetting the bed again or asking to sleep in your bed could be a normal response to stressful information. Be careful not to shame your child about changes like these. Rather, give them some time, continue to provide reassurance and keep a watchful eye. If you are concerned, reach out for support. Your child’s school, their pediatrician and local child therapists are all great resources.

What are some other approaches and strategies that have helped you parent with hope today?

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