five things to consider before talking to your kids about today's tragedy

I was absolutely devastated to turn on the news this morning and learn about the violent shooting at an elementary school. I was in a hotel room alone in Nashville, having flown out for a charity event last night, so I watched the coverage unfold in horror, feeling completely helpless.  I had an impulse to call my husband and have him pick up the kids early from school.  I was desperate to hug them but thousands of miles away.  I at least wanted them to be with my husband, hunkered down in the safety of our own home.  I resisted that urge, though, in part because, putting my emotions aside, I know that my children are too young to process what happened, and I wanted them to go about their day, blissfully unaware of the evil that manifested at another school.

I've been thinking all day about what, if anything, I will say to my children about today's events when I arrive home tonight.  My conclusion has been that, for my kids, I won't be talking about the shooting. Here are some of the questions I've been asking myself today, and I thought I would write them out to help myself process, and also in the hopes that it can help some of you as you consider if and how you will talk to your kids.

Have I processed this enough myself to download the information to my kids? 

I think it is okay for kids to see their parents experience grief and sorrow, but I think it's quite scary for kids to see their parents unhinged. I know that many of us felt fearful today.  I don't know if having kids see that fear is helpful.  I don't think it would be possible to be emotionally neutral about today's events, but taking some time to process and grieve ourselves before talking with our kids is probably wise.

Will my kids benefit from this information? 

This was probably the biggest question for me . . . does their need to know about this outweigh the fear and anxiety it will cause? The reality is that there is nothing I could say to my kids that could either prevent or prepare them for something like this happening to them. It's a tragic and rare incident, and inevitably telling them about it will make them worry it could happen to them.  And yet, there is nothing I could say to calm that worry.  I don't shy away from talking to my kids about hard things when their knowledge can help prevent it. For this reasons we've had frank conversations about things like sexual abuse, stranger safety, and bullying. But I don't think that talking to my kids about mass shootings would in any way equip them for such an event. In truth. I don't even want them to think about being in such a situation. For me, there is no benefit in telling my kids about something that is so violent and, hopefully, unlikely to happen to them. 

Can I realistically protect them from this information?

I don't watch news around my children, and I certainly don't plan to let them see coverage of today's tragedy. I could barely keep it together as I watched traumatized children exiting the school. It's not something I want to expose them to.  Of course, there will be children who see it, and the reality is that while I may try to protect my kids, they might hear about it from another child at school.  Some kids may even hear about it from well-meaning teachers.  I have emailed each of my kids' teachers to find out if they will be addressing it in class. If so, I will talk to them about it as well. I will also be intentional in checking in with them in case another child talks to them about it.  I recognize that, while I'd like to protect my kids from this, I may not be able to. I'll be contemplating how to talk to them about it if that is the case.

Is my child old enough to process this event?  

I don’t know if there is a magical age when kids are ready to have the veil of innocence lifted to expose the evil that is in the world. I do know that mine are not mature enough to process this without internalizing a lot of fear. We are still dealing with the fallout of being mugged in Peru - and the kids have been jumpy and scared since that happened. I don't want to introduce a new thing to fear. 

Is my child prone to anxiety? 

We all know our kids, and their personalities and temperaments. I was a rather anxious child.  I remember a time around the age of my own kids when my parents were watching the news and explained a bit of the cold war to me. I remember being so scared of being bombed by the Russians. I thought about it every night. I was always prone to anxiety, and so that information was hard for me to process at that age. Similarly, my eldest had a fireman come and talk to his school last year. In the weeks following, he talked endlessly about all the ways he could die by fire. His stress level went up, and he seemed afraid. I know that some of my kids struggle with anxiety, so that is a factor in choosing not to tell them.

This event has caused me to do some reflection about what I’m willing to talk to my kids about. I try to live my life with eyes wide open – I want to know what is going on in the world and I’m very intentional about educating myself on the issues, even when those issues are hard to face.  I want my kids to be educated and empathic citizens.  But I also want them to live without fear of awful things for just a little longer.  I know there will come a time to talk to them about gun violence and mass shootings.  For my family, as I've asked myself the questions above, today is not that time. I don't have any judgment for parents who make other decisions. I think we all have to decide for ourselves and consider the unique needs of our own kids. 

Will you be talking to your kids about what happened today?  How did you make that decision? If you talked to your children, do you have any wisdom or insight to share with others who are doing the same?


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