Some Resources for Families and Communities:
Due to recent tragic events across the country
Racial Stress and Self-care:
Parent Tip Tool
How race-related stress affects you and your relationship with your child
What effect does racism have on your health and well-being?
Not only does racism impact you as a parent, it can also impact how you interact with your children. Experiences of racism build on each other and can chip away at your emotional, physical and spiritual resources as a parent, contributing to race-related stress. Race-related stress can make it hard to have the space needed to take care of yourself as a parent, which reduces the emotional space you need to adequately take care of your children.
Racism can impact parents emotionally, physically and spiritually
The body’s response to the experience of racism can make accessing resources to cope with the situation difficult. Race-related stress is unique in that it threatens psychological resources that are needed to cope and fulfill basic needs such as financial support, housing, access to jobs, etc.
When your body is in stress mode, it is geared up to help you and your child survive, which sometimes leads to impulsive decisions. If you live in a chronic state of stress related to racism, you can start to engage in survival coping. Survival coping can help you to deal with very hard or potentially life-threatening situations. However, if you continue to exist in this mode long-term, it can make it difficult to enjoy being in the moment with your child and can reduce your ability to feel safe and in control.
What impact can racial stress have on your parenting?
Experiencing race-related stress can also impact the quality of parenting relationships in the following ways:
What do we tell our children? How do we reassure them of their own safety?
At The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, we’ve provided grief support groups for children, teens, young adults and their parents or adult caregivers since 1982.
Based on our experience, here are some things for adults to keep in mind as you struggle with how to talk with children following tragic events, such as natural disasters, plane crashes, or school shootings.
1. Don’t project your fears onto your children. They take their cues from the adults around them.
You can’t hear the news about children being murdered or communities devastated by natural disasters without thinking about how you’d feel if it happened to your family, friends, or hometown. The outpouring of care and empathy for the families who lost loved ones will be powerful, and…we all know it could have been our friends, our child, our family and community members who died or were injured.
Identifying with the senselessness and randomness makes us all feel more vulnerable. But we should remember that children don’t always see things the same way that adults do, and it won’t be helpful to them for us to fall apart. They need to see that we care, that we feel terrible about this tragedy, and that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. They will take their cues from our behavior.
It’s okay to show emotion. We can model for children that feeling sad, scared, and upset is normal after tragedies. But we don’t want to overwhelm them with our emotions, or put them in the position of having to ‘parent,’ or take care of, the adults around them. Make sure you also model taking care of yourself, by sharing with trusted and supportive adult friends, eating (and drinking) healthfully.
2. Try to limit their access to the recurring news and exposure to the tragedy over and over.
Over-exposure to the graphic and emotional news can be overwhelming for children and can cause unnecessary anxiety and fear. Some children who repeatedly watched the footage of planes crashing into the towers on 9/11 thought it was happening again and again. Some children (and some adults) may have difficulty getting graphic scenes and images out of their minds. Too much exposure can fuel their fear, so don’t let them sit and watch the news over and over. Better yet, set the example of not doing so yourself as well.
3. Understand that you can’t completely shield them from what happened.
It would be next to impossible to hide these events from children, as much as we wish we could. You might be able to shield your own child in your home, for example, by not turning on (or owning) a television, but you can’t protect your children from hearing about it from other kids. The fact is, they will hear about it, so although they don’t “need” to know about it, pretending we can shield them is magical thinking.
That said, you don’t need to give them more information than they can handle, or more than they’re asking for. A simple, “Did they talk about what happened in _____ today at school?” would be a good starter. They need to know that you’re not trying to hide the truth from them, that you’re open to talking about it, but that you’re also not forcing them to do so.
4. Model truth-telling and build trust with your children by letting them hear things, even hard things, from you directly.
Eight days after the 9/11 attacks, I was meeting in small groups with pre-school workers in New York City, talking about how to respond to the young children in their care about the events. A man asked to speak to me privately after one of the trainings, and asked for my advice around his 7-year-old daughter. For the last week, since September 12th, she had been having stomach aches and difficulty sleeping. He said it was not tied to the events of 9/11 because, “We don’t have a television.” As his story unfolded it was evident that he did not want to have to explain to his child why people would do such horrible things, a normal dilemma that we face as parents and adults. This child was experiencing physical reactions, as it turned out, not primarily because of her reaction to the events of 9/11, but because she was unable to share her fears and concerns and questions in her own home, faced with her parents’ denial.
Here are some principles to keep in mind as you talk with children:
1. There is no one typical reaction one can or should expect from children.
Their responses will vary all over the ‘emotional’ map, from seeming disinterest to nightmares, eating issues, and anxiety. How any specific child will respond will depend on their age, previous experience with death and loss, and their personality style. Fearful children will tend to worry; quiet children may keep their feelings to themselves; those who want to appear unfazed may exhibit a sense of bravado or lack of caring. Of course, children directly affected – those who had a family member die; those who witnessed the tragedy; those who had friends die – will tend to have longer-term reactions and needs. Watch for changes in behavior, or concerning trends. While it would be normal to have heightened anxiety and sleeplessness, any concerning behavior or troubling symptoms should be taken seriously, and if warranted, professional help sought.
2. Many children will have an increased sense of fear about their safety.
Understandably. So will many adults. After a shooting at an Oregon mall in December 2012, the news outlets were filled with people who said they’d never take their children there again. Others said they’d return as soon as it opened in order to support the stores and employees who had experienced the traumatic events, and whose livelihoods were going to suffer as a result of the several day closure. Some runners in the Boston Marathon vowed to return; others said they would never do so again.
While we can’t guarantee to our children that nothing bad will ever happen to them, we can provide assurance that these events are relatively rare, and that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. Children may have many questions about the events, particularly about natural disasters. Answer their questions with language that fits their developmental stage. It’s okay if you don’t know the answer to a question. If it’s a question that might have an answer, offer to look up more information. You can also ask children what they think the answer is as they often have thoughts and ideas they want to share with you. In the case of natural disasters, if your child is fearful of something like that happening in your community, talk with them about the safety plan that you have in place for your family and home. You can also look into what community safety measures are in place and whatever elements are relevant with your children. Many children will be reassured knowing that there are specific, tangible things they and your family can do if something occurs. Some examples include, picking a meeting place, keeping flashlights in every bedroom, talking about where you will keep emergency water and food.
3. Children want, need, and deserve the truth.
In over 30 years of providing grief support to thousands of children and teens at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families, we have never heard a child say, “I’m glad I was lied to.” Many, however, struggle with anger and lack of trust toward parents or other adults who lied to them. When we don’t tell the truth, they learn that we cannot be trusted. As difficult as it can be at times, and as horrendous as the truth may be, children want, need, and deserve the truth. Being able to talk openly and honestly with your children about tragic events and other losses, creates a foundation of trust, enabling them to come to you in the future with their questions, fears, and concerns.
Helping Children with Tragic Events in the News
In times of community or world-wide crisis, it’s easy to assume that young children don’t know what’s going on. But one thing’s for sure — children are very sensitive to how their parents feel. They’re keenly aware of the expressions on their parents’ faces and the tone of their voices. Children can sense when their parents are really worried, whether they’re watching the news or talking about it with others. No matter what children know about a “crisis,” it’s especially scary for children to realize that their parents are scared.
Some Scary, Confusing Images
The way that news is presented on television can be quite confusing for a young child. The same video segment may be shown over and over again through the day, as if each showing was a different event. Someone who has died turns up alive and then dies again and again. Children often become very anxious since they don’t understand much about videotape replays, closeups, and camera angles. Any televised danger seems close to home to them because the tragic scenes are taking place on the TV set in their own living room. Children can’t tell the difference between what’s close and what’s far away, what’s real and what’s pretend, or what’s new and what’s re-run.
The younger the children are, the more likely they are to be interested in scenes of close-up faces, particularly if the people are expressing some strong feelings. When there’s tragic news, the images on TV are most often much too graphic and disturbing for young children.
“Who will take care of me?”
In times of crisis, children want to know, “Who will take care of me?” They’re dependent on adults for their survival and security. They’re naturally self-centered. They need to hear very clearly that their parents are doing all they can to take care of them and to keep them safe. They also need to hear that people in the government and other grown-ups they don’t even know are working hard to keep them safe, too.
Helping Children Feel More Secure
Play is one of the important ways young children have of dealing with their concerns. Of course, playing about violent news can be scary and sometimes unsafe, so adults need to be nearby to help redirect that kind of play into nurturing themes, such as a hospital for the wounded or a pretend meal for emergency workers.
When children are scared and anxious, they might become more dependent, clingy, and afraid to go to bed at night. Whining, aggressive behavior, or toilet “accidents” may be their way of asking for more comfort from the important adults in their lives. Little by little, as the adults around them become more confident, hopeful and secure, our children probably will, too.
Turn Off the TV
When there’s something tragic in the news, many parents get concerned about what and how to tell their children. It’s even harder than usual if we’re struggling with our own powerful feelings about what has happened. Adults are sometimes surprised that their own reactions to a televised crisis are so strong, but great loss and devastation in the news often reawaken our own earlier losses and fears – even some we think we might have “forgotten”
It’s easy to allow ourselves to get drawn into watching televised news of a crisis for hours and hours; however, exposing ourselves to so many tragedies can make us feel hopeless, insecure, and even depressed. We help our children and ourselves if we’re able to limit our own television viewing. Our children need us to spend time with them – away from the frightening images on the screen.
Talking and Listening
Even if we wanted to, it would be impossible to give our children all the reasons for such things as war, terrorists, abuse, murders, major fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. If they ask questions, our best answer may be to ask them, “What do you think happened?” If the answer is “I don’t know,” then the simplest reply might be something like, “I’m sad about the news, and I’m worried. But I love you, and I’m here to care for you.”
If we don’t let children know it’s okay to feel sad and scared, they may think something is wrong with them when they do feel that way. They certainly don’t need to hear all the details of what’s making us sad or scared, but if we can help them accept their own feelings as natural and normal, their feelings will be much more manageable for them.
Angry feelings are part of being human, especially when we feel powerless. One of the most important messages we can give our children is, “It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hurt ourselves or others.” Besides giving children the right to their anger, we can help them find constructive things to do with their feelings. This way, we’ll be giving them useful tools that will serve them all their life, and help them to become the worlds’ future peacemakers — the world’s future “helpers.”
- Do your best to keep the television off, or at least limit how much your child sees of any news event.
- Try to keep yourself calm. Your presence can help your child feel more secure.
- Give your child extra comfort and physical affection, like hugs or snuggling up together with a favorite book. Physical comfort goes a long way towards providing inner security. That closeness can nourish you, too.
- Try to keep regular routines as normal as possible. Children and adults count on their familiar pattern of everyday life.
- Plan something that you and your child enjoy doing together, like taking a walk, going on a picnic, having some quiet time, or doing something silly. It can help to know there are simple things in life that can help us feel better, in good times and in bad.
- Even if children don’t mention what they’ve seen or heard in the news, it can help to ask what they think has happened. If parents don’t bring up the subject, children can be left with their misinterpretations. You may be really surprised at how much your child has heard from others.
- Focus attention on the helpers, like the police, firemen, doctors, nurses, paramedics, and volunteers. It’s reassuring to know there are many caring people who are doing all they can to help others in this world.
- Let your child know if you’re making a donation, going to a town meeting, writing a letter or e-mail of support, or taking some other action. It can help children to know that adults take many different active roles and that we don’t give in to helplessness in times of worldwide crisis.