How I wish I didn’t have to write about the mass murder of 11 human beings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. What a burden it is to have to explain to our children something so heinous, something that I cannot explain. I am sick to my stomach.
As always, I am being asked, “Should I tell my children? How much should I tell my children? How can I make them feel safe in the world and especially when they go to religious school? How do I answer, ‘But why?’ How do I explain someone who is so filled with rage and hate?”
So, how can I not answer these parents and teachers (and directors) to the best of my ability? As is so often the case, doing something is a small step in feeling better. So, I write.
Here are some tips for having the conversation with your children.
- Your children are watching you. You need to be aware of your reactions and the feelings you are experiencing and leaking. Do your best to get own emotions under control.
- Control the media input. These days so many children have access to the internet on tablets, TV, and phones, that it is difficult to limit exposure. Do your best to turn off the television, the news, the car radio. Be aware of what they are seeing on their devices.
- Be available to your children. Stay home and stick around. “Circle the wagons,” as I am known to say. Allow whatever is on your child’s mind to surface in a calm and peaceful environment, void of rushing in and out.
- Use the two ears, two eyes, and one mouth you have. Use them. Listen and watch for signs of distress or discomfort in your child or that this tragedy is on his mind.
- For children 7 years and under there is no need to discuss the tragedy. If, however, your child has heard about it, you will need to be available to answer her questions.
- With children 8 years and older, wait until they bring it up. There is no reason to create a problem that doesn’t exist…yet.
- Give your full attention. If/when your child comes to you, give her your full attention. Devices down!
- First, acknowledge the tragic event. “Yes, there was a horrible tragedy in Pittsburgh at a synagogue.”
- Find out what she knows. Regardless of what she says or asks, your job is first to find out what she knows and to clear up any misinformation the child may have. You might say, “Tell me what you heard about that.” Do not confirm more information than what she has said.
- Your response to your child depends upon her age and development. You know your child best. Different age children are able to hear and will process information differently. (You know how much she can handle.) Eight and 9 year olds will want to know details that younger children need not be told. Ten and 11 year olds will be more interested in the “Why?” question. As you respond with honesty and few frills, take the opportunity to reinforce what YOU believe, “I cannot possibly think of any reason ever to try to kill someone.”
- Try not to have this conversation at bedtime!
- Be honest Answer just what she has asked and no more. “Yes. Some people were killed in a synagogue. It was a horrible tragedy.” Of course, you can show your sadness, but don’t overdo it. Leave space for your child to react in her own way. And beware of revealing your fear.
- Different children will process the horror of such an event differently. Some will ask more and more questions; some will be more internal. But you need to remain available to be the caring, safe parent and listener who will always be there to talk, answer her questions, tell her the truth, and reassure her.
- Children, especially elementary school age children, need to be reminded that this event is unusual. As hard as it is for us to believe this right now, we do live in a safe world. One of the ways our children know to be safe is through the “lockdown drills” all children practice in school. They know more than you may realize.
- Assure your children of their safety. It is a basic need of all children. We must continue to tell them all the ways they are safe, all the people whose jobs it is to keep them safe, all the measures that are in place to keep us all safe. Especially children who attend synagogue or a synagogue school will need to have that synagogue’s safety protocol reiterated. In addition, children need to be told that most people are good people who do not hurt others. The person who perpetrated this horrific event is the exception.
- Children will ask, “Why did he do that?” It is okay to say that you don’t know why he did that when you don’t know why. But with older children –upper elementary, middle, and high school—you can continue the conversation you have likely already started about tragic events and even terrorism. “Some people are filled with hatred and anger. They simply don’t like people who are different from them—people with different skin color, or people who have different ideas about our government, and even people who are a different religion from them.“
- Share your beliefs with your children. This is the time to emphasize what you believe. The antidote to this horror will be your strong expression of what you believe, what you support, and how you choose to behave.
- Do something. A healthy distraction to a tragic event is to come together with others to give back. In times like these, finding ways to be a helping community, doing volunteer work, is a really good antidote to sadness and fear.
(See the chapter “Is the First Going to Come to Our House?” in my book JUST TELL ME WHAT TO SAY for more scripts and answers you can adapt to your particular younger child.)
No parent is eager to engage her child in a conversation about hatred and violence. This will be just the beginning for some children. And, as difficult as it is for you and for your child, being able to talk about it is what she needs. It may come now, or it may surface months from now. You need to be prepared.
Beginning Lessons about Adults Who are Violent
- Children know that violence is unacceptable. Any child who has attended any kind of school already knows this reality.
- Why do grown-ups use violence? This is the question that is so hard for children to understand, as they expect grown people to behave, play fair, and follow the rules.
For the young child,
The man who hurt so many people was really really angry. He did not know how to get his angry feelings out. Instead he did a terrible, horrible thing, he used violence and hurt (and killed) people with a gun.
Older children are able to have a discussion about appropriate ways to express really big feelings, about the horror of violence, and even about gun laws. Each family has different ideas about gun control. This is a perfect opportunity to share yours with your child.
- Children need to see the acceptable expression of big feelings by the adults in their lives. It is not reasonable to expect a child manage his big feelings if he hasn’t seen that behavior modeled by his parents. Hopefully, you never model violence for or with your child. Instead, let him hear that you are angry and see what you do to get your feelings out.
…I am so angry right now, I need to go for a run.
…I am so frustrated, I need to go outside and scream.
…I am so mad, I just need to be by myself and blow off some steam.
…I am really disappointed and sad, I need to call Uncle Billy and talk about it.
- Be sure to let your child know when you have recovered. Children need to see that all feelings come and go, that people usually don’t stay angry forever if the feeling is processed and discussed.
- Seeing you experience and process big feelings helps the child to normalize hers. It also sets her on the road for learning anger management skills she will need throughout her life.
Having a model for how healthy adults process their anger enables the child to see how extremely unacceptable and just plain wrong violence is.