I went on a radio program this morning to talk about how we can help the kids on our lives through difficult times. Here's what I said and what I wish I had had time to say.
We can stay calm. Children need to know that the grownups in their lives are okay. Even if they see us cry or hear some of our sadness and anger, they need to know that we are not undone, that we are still in charge, that we have a plan and that we can help. That means that we don't run at the mouth about all our confusion and helplessness in front of the kids. It means that we squeeze them a little tighter when we hug them but that we don't cling. It means that we don't make them responsible for making us feel better.
We can reassure them that they are safe. The school shooting in CT didn't happen to them. It feels like it happened to all of us but it didn't. The chances are very good that they are safe. Their school is safe. Children see the media reports and think that if something happened somewhere, it will happen anywhere. They have very little sense of probability so they don't realize that school shootings are extraordinarily rare and that the probability that they will ever experience one is almost zero. Millions of children went to school yesterday and came home. Even most of the children in the Sandy Hook Elementary School came home.
We can start a dialogue, not a lecture. It's important for us to talk with our children rather than, in our anxiety, talking at them. We can start by asking what they know. That will help us gauge their level of interest and engagement. We can correct their misconceptions--especially scary ones--and give more information. Then we can ask them how they feel and then we can let them feel what they feel. They may say, "I don't know." Giving children words for feelings is one of the most important things that adults can do for children. They may have their own words. If they don't, we can say that a lot of people are feeling really sad or mad or scared.
We can ask them what they want to know. When I picked Boo up at school on 9/11, I asked her what she wanted to know about the day's events. She answered, "Is the Statue of Liberty still there?" She wanted the reassurance that the prominent symbol of our nation (in her mind) was intact. I never would have known that if I hadn't asked. Later, as she was watching some of the news footage for the first time, I asked her again. She answered, "Are all those people okay?" I answered that most of the people in the buildings got out safely but that some died. She visibly relaxed and had only a few questions after that.
We can be careful not to blame God. When we say things like, "God wanted those children to come live in heaven with him," or "God needed them to be angels," we are not only teaching bad theology but also scaring our children. We adults don't know how to make sense of tragedy; we don't know why this happened. How on earth can we try to give answers to children? If they ask why, we can tell the truth: A man went into the school with a gun and shot some people. That's why. We can reassure them that God loves all the people in Newtown and that he is helping them.
With older children and teenagers, we can talk about what it means that we live in a profoundly broken world where bad things happen on a pretty regular basis. We can talk about what it means that God loves this world, even in its brokenness, and is even now working to redeem and restore it and that he calls us to be part of that work. We can share our own feelings of vulnerability as well as our own commitment to live lives of courage, hope and love in the midst of the darkness. This is exactly what older children and teens want to hear.
We can look honestly at the violence in our own homes. The screaming and threatening and hatefulness and hitting that happens in good homes all over this country is far more traumatizing to children than a tragedy they hear about on the news. If you are an adult, do what it takes to make it stop.
And then there's love. Nothing we do is more important. Children who know they are loved and are secure in their place in the hearts of the adults around them are far less vulnerable to the effects of trauma and are far less likely to act out violently themselves. Of course, we love our children but we can work harder to make sure they know it. We can indulge them less and guide them more. We can make sure they see us showing love to those who are different and difficult so that they always know that there will be love for them when they are different or difficult.
Faith, hope and love--these three. And the greatest of these is love.