Explaining the World to Kids When You’re Still Trying to Understand it

Explaining a Violent World to Kids When You're Still Trying to Understand itSometimes during the day, there is that holy space that presents itself, where miraculously, no one is asking you to make them a snack. No one is requesting assistance in the bathroom. No one is screaming, pinching, biting, fighting, or destroying anything. A chance to relax: It is the eye of the parenting hurricane.

Your perspective shifts a bit, though, when you take this precious opportunity to peruse social media or check your favorite news source, and discover that another tragedy has occurred. Suddenly you’re in a mental state where you no longer feel irritated by the thirty-seventh request for a peanut-butter sandwich, but also feel too hopeless with grief over the state of the world to compel yourself to do much of anything.

There are no vacation days in parenting. While chaos and heartache seem to be just outside the front door, there is rarely a space to pause for reflection and processing with little ones around. Reconciling the seemingly impossible task of protecting your children in a world where you feel you have no control is daunting without the pressing reality of terrorism, mass shootings, natural disasters, or any other of the traumatic events that can occur. Focusing on a few tools can make a significant difference as you navigate through difficult times:

  • Be present with your children. As your child’s parent, you provide both a sense of normalcy and stability, and also have the tools to comfort your child. If you are feeling emotional, model expression of those emotions in a healthy way to your children. Explain in terms that they can understand that you feel sad, and this is what you personally do when you feel sad.
  • Recognize that different reactions are normal. The brain has evolved to handle varying levels of trauma and difficult emotions, and different people will respond differently to the same event. This applies to our children as well. One child may respond with fear and heightened anxiety to a traumatic event, while another child may continue on with life as if nothing has happened. Both reactions are normal, and it is important to make sure to validate your child’s emotions to create a space where they feel comfortable expressing those emotions with you.
  • Answer their questions. It is normal to feel concerned about providing too many details that may replace confusion with fear when discussing tragic  world events. If your child is asking the question, though, that is their way of communicating that they are ready for that kind of information. Answer just the question that they are asking, in language they understand, and be receptive to more questions. Ideas and emotions left unexplored by children can develop into anxiety and depression later, so encouraging open communication allows the child to address concerns as they arise.
  • Give yourself space to grieve and self-care. Whether you are grieving for lives that have ended, for the lost sense of security in the world your children are growing up in, or anything in between, those emotions are valid and worth processing. Parenting involves so many pressures when the world feels stable and secure; allowing yourself some wiggle-room and leniency while you put energy into mourning not only allows for greater emotional energy to care for your children, but also models for them the importance of working through hard emotions.

Parenting in a tumultuous world is certainly not anyone’s first choice when they take the plunge into rearing a child. Acquiring the tools to work through the hard things will help you be successful in your parenting journey, as well as equip your children with the resilience they will need to thrive alongside the hard things.

Keighty Brigman is a mother of four and has a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Kansas with an emphasis in Adult Mental Health. She has worked with clients in overcoming trauma, depression, anxiety, and grief.

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