*Being a Parent During Dark Times – By Adele Ryan McDowell, Ph.D. *
I recently spoke with a parent following the Newtown shooting. The muscle in his jaw repeatedly clenched as he shared his feelings of powerlessness to protect his kids from a world gone mad. He said this is his job and, right now, he feels that he is failing miserably. How can he protect his kids who are so frightened? School and their town are no longer a safe place. Following the horror of the shooting, they were repeated lockdowns at area schools because twisted copy-cat-crazies were making post-event threats. His kids are freaked. He and his wife are as well.
What can a parent do?
1. Be authentic. Express your true feelings.
Children may not always understand your words, but they can feel the truth of what you are saying.
Speaking your truth also allows your kids to feel safe. They can trust you. Your words and feelings match. You are coherent.
2. Share information in an age appropriate way.
Little kids have no need to know gory details, much less watch repetitive news videos of violence. If there are questions, answer them truthfully in a way that they will understand. Older kids will want to discuss with you what this means and how it will impact their lives. They will learn from you that it is ok to feel all sorts of feelings — and none of those feelings are bad; they just are.
One of the Sandy Hook teachers told her class of little ones they were not going outside that Friday morning because their playground was broken. The smalls nodded in understanding.
3. It’s ok not to have all the answers. It’s ok to say out loud you don’t know.
By admitting that you don’t know everything, you teach your kids that they don’t have to know everything. You teach them to accept mystery — the huge questions of the universe that defy a simple response in that moment — or for a lifetime.
When we don’t know, we learn to dig for answers and solutions. We research, ask questions, and decide for ourselves what is the truth of our experience. Part of life is putting on our thinking caps and figuring out options and strategies. This helps us to expand our creativity and resourcefulness and learn mastery.
4. Build on family strength and circle the wagons.
This is a wonderful idea used by a Newtown Dad:
Following the shooting, a Dad comes home to his wife and three kids. His teenager is doing ok. His youngest child is too young to know much of what has transpired, and his middle child (10 years old) is very upset and cannot stop crying. That night, after dinner, the Dad decides that they will push together all the modular furniture in the family room and be together. Mom, Dad, the three kids, and two dogs all sleep together. It was an inspired idea that made all the difference in the world. His 10 year old was noticeably more stable in the morning and the whole family felt connected with one another.
We sometimes forget we need each other. And we forget we have strength, solidarity, comfort, and hope when we stand — and sleep — together.
5. Remind your kids that they are not alone.
If your kids are young, here is a wonderful drawing exercise that allows kids to see, feel, and know they are not alone. If they are older, the theme of this exercise makes an excellent talking point.
Get a good-sized piece of blank paper and crayons, markers, colored pencils, and the like. Have your child draw themselves as a stick figure in the middle of the page. Then, ask your child to draw the people who make them feel loved, cared for, and safe. Draw these identified people around their stick-figure-self. Ideally, your child will see herself flanked by a myriad of loved ones and visually grasp that she is not alone.
6. Take positive actions.
The unknown can make us nervous; unexpected terror and violence are crazy-making and can make us hyper vigilant, super anxious, and inordinately fearful. One of the best ways to deal with anxiety is to do something. Move out of the worrying head and move into the body and take some physical action. A run through the park, a pick-up game of basketball, or bicycling through the neighborhood can help release pent-up emotions.
Ritual is another way to create meaning and provide some closure.
One possibility that has been successful with children dealing with death and trauma is to get helium balloons (hopefully, the biodegradable ones) and have your child draw a picture or write some words and attach it to the balloon. Then, release the balloons to the now-lost Angel Kids or to whomever you want to remember in your world. It’s a lovely healing ritual for any lost loved one.
Remember, if you cannot help directly, then, help where it is needed in your community. Good deeds are good deeds. There are no boundaries or delineations in spreading good energy and light. Helping one person helps us all. Spread the light wherever you are.
7. You need to feel to heal.
Quite simply, if we don’t let our heavier feelings move through us, we remain stuck. Whatever the feeling — anger, rage, sadness, despair — give your child permission to express it. This is not the time for stiff upper lips and “Don’t be a crybaby” admonitions. This is the time to draw, act it out, have conversations with via stuffed animals, and the like.
Grief and sadness move in waves. Everyone has their own internal timing. Give your child permission to be just as he is. There is no right or wrong in this process. However, if there is protracted lack of sleep, nightmares, refusal to eat, etc., seek professional help. You never have to go through this alone.
8. Remember to say “I love you.” When said with meaning, those three words are filled with light. And amidst the darkness, we need to embrace the light.
One of the Sandy Hook teachers huddled in a closet with some of her students during the rampage repeatedly told her kids, “I love you.” She wanted her students to know of her love and for those to possibly be the last words they ever heard. To my understanding, this brave teacher lost her life and saved her kids.
One of the signs in Newtown says it best. It reads: “We are the people of Newtown. We choose love.”
And, of course, that is what we all choose for our children, for our loved ones, and, when we are ready, for everyone who shares our Earth home. We choose love.
A note from the author: I have been able to offer crisis support to friends, parents, and co-workers impacted by the Newtown shootings. I am humbled and honored to help my CT neighbors. Newtown is an amazing community unified by love and support. This whole tragedy reminds me of the poet Rumi’s words: “Break my heart, oh, break it again, so I can love more fully.”
About the Author:
Psychologist Adele Ryan McDowell, Ph.D., the SelfGrowth.com Official Guide to Hope, is the author of the Amazon best-selling Balancing Act: Reflections, Meditations, and Coping Strategies for Today’s Fast-Paced Whirl and a contributing author to the best-selling Shift Awareness anthologies, 2012: Creating Your Own Shift and The Sacred Shift: Co-creating Your Future in a New Renaissance and Adventures in Manifesting: Love and Oneness. Adele’s next book is Making Peace with Suicide. http://www.selfgrowth.com/solos/adelemcdowell.html