Simple DOs and DON'Ts DO -
Go first. As the adult, you are the leader.
DO - Tell the truth about how you feel. It will establish a tone of trust and safety.
DO - Recognize that grief is emotional, not intellectual, and that sad or scared feelings are normal.
DO - Remember that each child is unique and has a unique relationship to what they hear and believe about war.
DO - Explain your beliefs about war clearly and openly to your children.
DO - Be Patient. Give your child time to formulate opinions. Make sure to plant healthy ideas about talking about feelings.
DO - Listen with your heart, not your head. Allow all emotions to be expressed, without judgment or criticism.
DON'T - Say "Don't feel scared." Fear is the most common response to threatening situations, for children and adults.
DON'T - Say "Don't feel sad." Sadness is a healthy and normal reaction to the possibility of the events that happen in a war.
DON'T - Ask your children how they are feeling. Like adults, fearful of being judged, they will automatically say, "I'm fine," even though they are not.
DON'T - Act strong for your children. They will interpret your non-feeling as something they are supposed to copy.
DON'T - Compare their lives or situations to others in the world. Comparison always minimizes feelings.
DON'T - Make promises that you cannot keep. Instead of saying "Everything's going to be okay," say, "We'll do everything we can to be safe."
DON'T - Forget that your children are very smart. Treat them and their feelings with respect and dignity as you would like to be treated by others.
Talking to Your Children about Frightening Events in the News September 11, 2001 has entered our language in the same emotional way as December 7, 1941 and November 22, 1963. Most people remember where they were when they found out about Pearl Harbor and about the shooting of John F. Kennedy. For most people, their first awareness of those events came on the radio. As photo images trickled in from Pearl Harbor, and televised images filtered in from Dallas, the tragic news we had heard was matched by visual pictures. Now, added to the graphic images of September 11, we have a growing litany of nationally publicized events. In the intervening 18 months, we have borne witness to the Beltway Sniper attacks which paralyzed several states on the East Coast. We have been subjected to the nightly, color-coded terror alert that dances along the bottom of many television channels. And recently, we have been beset with back to back to back tragedies that affected us all; the Columbia Shuttle Disaster; the Chicago Night Club debacle; and the Rhode Island rock concert tragedy. While we adults grapple with the gamut of emotions unearthed by all of those events, our children are watching. They are watching the TV and they are watching us. The question we have heard most often at The Grief Recovery Institute® is: What do we say to our children?
Children come in all ages and sizes and with their own unique personalities attached. Some are outgoing, some are shy. Intellectual and emotional maturity differs from child to child. It is impossible to put down one set of guidelines that would be applicable to all children. Nearly everyone we talk to has told us a story about September 11, in which they tried, with varying degrees of success, to address the emotions triggered in their children. As parents already know, it can be difficult to explain death to young children, who often don’t grasp the idea of the permanence of death. The idea that there are evil people who want to harm us, adds another dimension to the task of communicating with little children.
Children from ages three to eight may have difficulty with the ideas and images they hear people talk about and see on the television. The nine to twelve age bracket and the thirteen and up bracket will have different fears and preoccupations than the younger children. We will give some general guidelines that have universal application for parents and other guardians, We have been asked whether or not parents should allow their children to watch the nonstop television coverage of violent events.
While we do not give advice, we recognize that since we as adults are affected by the repeated images, they will obviously affect the children. However, we are not the authority source for your children. You must make your own decisions about TV exposure for your children. It may be unrealistic at this point to keep your children entirely hidden from TV, newspapers, magazines, or even conversations about the tragedy. What is most important is that you make it safe and possible for your children to talk with you about the information they are seeing or hearing, regardless of the source. Now we are being asked to help people talk to their children about the impending war with Iraq.
As always, the DOs and DON'Ts highlighted above are a small guide. But what follows may give you a more in-depth understanding of what is effective in communicating with your children who are looking to you for guidance at this crucial time. In our book, When Children Grieve, we address the general issues of how to talk about death with children, and whether or not to allow children to attend funerals. We also address the fact that the most important element about children and grief is not the AGE or SIZE of the child, but the KNOWLEDGE and HONESTY of the parents and other guardians. In the book, we do not make specific reference to the specific incidents this nation and its citizens, young and old, have experienced over the past year and a half. Even if we had decided to address national tragedies in general, the specifics of those events are so extraordinary that it is unlikely that we could have come close to the circumstances that are producing the kind of questions and preoccupations that affect us and our children.
Now - How to Help Your Children Tell the Truth About Yourself
On Wednesday morning, September 12, 2001, I sat in a chair as a young woman applied makeup to my face so I could go on a local TV show to talk to parents about how to talk to their children. When she found why I was there, she told me that the night before her eight-year-old daughter told her that she was scared. I asked her if she told her daughter that she too was scared. She said "No." I asked her if she was scared. She said "Yes." Then she asked, "Russell, should I have told my daughter that I was scared?" I said, "If you expect her to tell you the truth, then you must tell her the truth." I went on to remind her that her daughter’s ability to read and interpret nonverbal communication is much more developed than her ability to understand spoken language. In that regard, her daughter probably knew that her mom was scared. She then might have been confused as to why her mom’s verbal and nonverbal communication was not the same. Here are two educational ideas: It is generally accepted that nonverbal communication makes up as much as 80% of our ability to communicate. That includes body language and tone of voice. More importantly, it is believed that when faced with conflicting communications, the receiver will invariably respond to the nonverbal. Thus the saying, "Do as I say not as I do," makes little sense, especially with the children, who may still be much more adept at nonverbal skills than verbal.
Adults Go First
When lecturing to a group of people, we ask this question, "Do you like being lied to?" Of course, not one hand in the room goes up. Then we ask, "How many of you, when asked how you feel have said ‘Fine,’ when you were actually feeling lousy?" Every hand in the room goes up. We then say, "Houston, we have a problem. None of you like being lied to, yet all of you lie about your feelings." We go on to explain that the reason most of us do this is because when we have told the truth about how we feel, we have been told, "Don’t feel bad, tomorrow’s another day," or "Don’t feel bad, be grateful you have two arms and two legs." When a loved one has died and we say how we feel, we’re told, "Don’t feel bad, she’s in a better place," or "Don’t feel bad, she lived a full life." If a divorce has rocked our world, we are told, "Don’t feel bad, you’ll do better next time." As you can plainly see, each and every circumstance is met with the illogical phrase, "Don’t feel bad." This happens after you have told the truth to someone you trust. It is absurd to think that someone telling you not to feel bad would actually alter the way you feel. If it were that easy, you could just tell yourself to not feel bad. The bottom line is that after awhile you start lying about how you feel, because when you tell the truth, you are told you shouldn’t feel that way. And just for the moment, we’ve been talking about adults. Imagine what it is like for a child to trust the adults and tell the truth about their feelings, only to be told not to feel that way. In our books we use the classic example of the five-year-old that comes home from preschool with tears in her eyes. Asked what happened, she says, "The other little girls were mean to me." To which the adults say, "Don’t feel bad, here have a cookie, you’ll feel better." One more example: Again, with an audience of adults we can ask this question - "What is your response when your spouse says, ‘What’s wrong honey?’ " The almost universal response is, "NOTHING." And that is from the person you most trust in this world. Why? Because even your spouse is afraid they will be told - all together now - "Don’t feel bad, ...fill in the blank..." Direct questions about emotions, other than the conversational courtesy of "Hi, how are you," are often perceived as interrogations or attacks. So, if we as adults are sensitive to protect our feelings, imagine what it’s like for the children. You may have observed over time that when you ask your children how they are, they may say "Fine," even when you know they’re not. You may have noticed that when you ask them, "What’s wrong, sweetie," they’ll say "Nothing." They have learned to protect themselves, just as you have. The problem is that we all need to have a safe place to talk about the feelings we have in response to all of life’s events. The events of the recent past and the potential for war in the near future have produced a cumulative shock-wave of emotions in adults and children in America. It is crucial at this time that we keep the pathways of communication wide open for our children. Please notice, we are suggesting not only that the parent goes first, but that they tell the simple and clear truth about their own emotions - "I was so scared...I was so sad..." One of the most incorrect ideas we have learned is that we should "be strong" for our children. Unfortunately that usually translates into the adults hiding their own feelings and sending mixed messages to the children. We'd prefer to suggest that you be human for your children - it is a much more helpful way to assist them in life. We have written about this in considerable detail in When Children Grieve. It is helpful to know these better ideas for day-to-day occurrences, as well as for dealing with extraordinary loss events of all magnitudes. Let us put this as simply as possible. Please don’t tell your children: Don’t feel bad Don’t feed sad Don’t feel scared Oh, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, don’t say those things to your adult friends, either.
Once May Not Be Enough
Creating safety and open emotional communication is essential at times of crisis, when our world is turned upside down and provokes a wide array of natural fears. But, it is foolhardy to think that a singular chat may be sufficient to complete everything that accrues inside your child’s heart, mind, and soul. As you might debrief the normal events of normal days with your spouse or children, it is wise to create some conversational safety so your children can feel free to mention some of the new ideas they may have heard that day in school, at a friend’s house, or on radio or TV, about the ongoing developments regarding anything that might affect their safety or wellbeing. Again, it is always smart for the adult to go first. Even if there is nothing new, or if you do not want to create a preoccupation in your children, you can say, "I didn’t hear anything new today, what about you?" At least you can gently open the door, without interrogating your child. It is also a good idea to adopt a normal, conversational tone. It might be a good idea to avoid things like, Let’s sit down and talk about what’s going on," which might put your child on the spot.
Don't Fix Feelings
One of the most common and incorrect ideas is that we can fix the feelings of others by the things we say. That is usually not true. One example: A man has just accidentally hit himself with a hammer while trying to build something. He has landed a damaging blow to one of his fingers. Blood is pouring out of the wound, and he is screaming in pain. A well-intended friend says, "Don't feel bad, you didn't do it on purpose." That comment, even though accurate, will neither reduce the flow of blood nor the amount of pain. While it is somewhat of an exaggerated story, it does demonstrate the point that physical feelings cannot be diminished by intellectual facts or by the well-wishes of others. The same is true for emotionally generated feelings. Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind. We have all experienced a loss of safety as well as a lost of trust. If your child said they were happy, you would not try to fix or alter that feeling. Therefore there is no need to fix a feeling of sadness or fear. Feelings need to be heard, not fixed. We all need to feel safe enough to talk about how we feel. Since feelings are normal and do not need to be fixed - Hear Them - Don’t Fix Them. In Conclusion As adults, you will have beliefs and philosophies about war and peace. You will have positions about all of the things that are presented to you by the various media. You have the absolute privilege of teaching your children about the values that you hold dear. We only hope that we can encourage you to value your children's natural emotional responses to the often terrifying information they are absorbing. If you do not judge their feelings, they will trust you. That is very important at this time.
If you found this article helpful, we also suggest these from our searchable Grief Blog library: