What should we say to our children in the wake of more and more school shootings? How can we ease their fears and answer their questions, not to mention ours? We look for the right thing to say just as we look for the motive of the killers—to make it all make sense, fix what needs fixing, feel better and move on. Can we ever again promise our children that they will be safe and believe it in our hearts to be true.
There is an abundance of advice on the internet, but the most helpful I have seen is words from Mr. Rogers.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” Fred Rogers
From the parents and families of all the victims, to the school children who are outraged and activated, to people we see each and every day, we must know there are helpers among us and around us, always.
You are your child’s helper but not the only one. A helper does not have to have the right answers. You can’t, because no one has them. Do for your child what you would like a helper do for you. Listen, understand their confusion and fear, their questioning, their possible and sudden abhorrent behaviors. Be patient, be kind, be compassionate. And that starts by having compassion for yourselves.
Watch when you dip into your fear: of hopelessness, of inadequacy to protect your children forever and ever, of not knowing how to answer your children’s questions, of not being able to fix this. Go to your helpers—family members, friends, professionals who show compassion for your worries and fears and who won’t tell you there’s nothing to worry about.
When you can off-load your fears, you become calmer. It is your calmness and confidence that your children need more than anything to feel safe. Not confidence that nothing will ever happen to you—confidence in your family’s strong relationships and solid home base, confidence that your children feel loved, important, and heard.
The answer does not lie in having the “right” answer. It lies in your relationship, your genuine caring, your sincere empathy. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be sure you have a shoulder to cry on, to scream into, to dump your fears on. Get out your angst with an adult so you can respond calmly with your children.
- Pay close attention to your children, watch for unusual behavior, problems sleeping or eating.
- Listen quietly and calmly to their questions and worries and do not allow your inability to assuage their fears to fuel impatience and anger.
- There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know.” Do not think you have to make it make sense for your child. Don’t project your needs on your child.
- Never tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of. Never belittle what feels important to them.
- Repair any morning arguments you have with a hug and an “I love you more than anything in life” before they leave for school.
- Ask your children if they know who their helpers are at school. Make sure they do.
- Point out helpers as you go through the day. “There’s someone you can always go to if anything were to happen.”
- When you go to crowded places with your children, make sure you always pick out a meeting place just in case you get separated.
- Make a list with your child of all the good, caring people your child knows—at school, home, stores, including police and firemen.
You do not serve your child by avoiding conversations about the possibility of bad things happening. On the contrary, they feel more confident when they know what they can do.
We think that as good parents, we must convince our children that they are safe. With very young children, I think you can do this without lying to them. You are safe. Mommy and Daddy’s job is to keep you safe. It is also our job to make sure you are always with people who keep you safe.
But when older children start asking questions that poke holes in blanket assurances, you have to be honest to insure your child’s trust in you. Because you need to always be one of your child’s helpers. Honesty does not mean telling everything. It means answering your child’s questions as truthfully as you can. You’re right, I cannot promise you that I will not be hit by a car or that I will live forever. All I can promise is that I will love you forever and take the best care of you and me I possibly can.
Be real, be honest, be genuine. It’s only in this safe relationship that your children will come to you for help.