Updated: May 5
How do we handle the increasing onslaught of sad, tragic, and confusing news that reaches our kid's ears (whether we like it or not)? There's no question that navigating news conversations with our kids about wars, pandemics, shootings, and an ongoing list of violent topics has become increasingly important - and challenging. Whatever lane you're in politically, however you've been raised, and whatever personal situation you are facing now - that's something we can agree about.
What can parents do?
Know your kids.
Kids are different, so a one-size-fits-all approach to difficult situations isn't the best approach.
When I was little, I was terrified of the Wizard of OZ. I had nightmares for weeks and awakened my parents with after seeing this film replete with violent kidnapping monkeys, melting witches, and friends too powerless to help. My parents decided I would not be allowed a second opportunity to see the movie again until I was much older. My younger sister, on the other hand, seemed un-phased, un-traumatized and even mystified by my response. She could obviously handle it. I couldn't. All this to say: a one-size-fits-all approach isn't the best approach. Why? Every kids is different. Know the differences, and you'll know your kid.
So, how do you know your kid? How do you figure out an approach that works? Consider their age, developmental phase, and previous responses to traumatic news (including, of course, how they respond to fictional depictions of violence, however imaginary). It's also important to understand if your child is shy or confident, bold or bashful, or even a leader or a follower. Craft your responses based on what you know about your child, and if you don't feel like you know your child well enough, set aside time to ask questions.
"Focus on the things that you have control over and that you can change."
- Dr. Sarah Vinson Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist Former President of the Georgia Council on Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Here’s how to do it:
Know your message.
Build Positive Tiny Habits
Does your child come to you with questions? If so, be glad. That's an open door, and be deliberate about cultivating times that you meet regularly.
If your child does not come to you with questions, begin with an invitation, and let your child set the terms. Either way, adding something fun and motivating will help build excitement about impending discussions. Making discussions fun will act as a reward for talking with you, and it can form a precedent for further discussions.
Be strategic about inviting conversations, and make sure you prepare your child for the discussion. For example:
An invitation for a younger child might look like this: "Jessica! You are so special to me that I want to set aside some talking time for us. I wanted to make sure that you and [mommy/daddy] choose a time where you can talk to me, even about hard stuff going on in the news. Let's pick a good time together."
An invitation for an older child might look like this: "Hey John, I noticed we haven't talked for a while. Would you be able to take some time this weekend to sit down and chat? You're not in trouble, and I don't have an agenda. I just thought it would be interesting for me to get you perspective about all that is going on in the news. How about this weekend at [pick the time]?"
What do Socrates and interesting books like "Never Split the Difference," by former FBI agent Chris Voss have in common? Both are experts at communication strategies that bring about desired results.
Socrates used questions so efficiently, that we still use the term "Socratic Questions" today to indicate a style of communication that emphasizes tapping into what people know, and helping them reflect on desired results. Likewise, Chris Voss uses questions to help others think about what they want, and communication strategies (like mirroring) to show others that we are engaged and listening.
This is a great time to ask kids questions. It's also a great time to spend a little time honing up your listening skills so they really feel heard.
Once you have heard your child, you will have a much better chance of knowing where to go with the conversation. For example, if your child says, "I don't care about that stuff," trust them, and believe them when they say they may not actually care about current events (even when you do).
But, if your child totally cares about something different, like Animal Crossing, Assassin's Creed, or their latest Netflix-binge watching show, it might be time to find some common ground and leave an open door for future discussions.
Also, it's worth noting that most people (including children) find a dialog easier than a diatribe - so stick with questions and don't overshare. Follow up on that one thing your child cares about - maybe it's a comment he or she heard from a political leader, or the kid next to him who wants to keep his mask under his chin, or something bigger - like the racial violence and hatred we see in the news. Whether your child wants to share about something big or small, it is helpful to be responsive to what he or she is looking for.
Know Your Message
So, here's the real question - what is your message? What do you want your child to walk away from the discussion with? Where do you want his or her confidence to be?
If you avoid the questions your child asks - you will train them not to come to you.
If you pretend you know all of the answers - you will train them you can't be trusted (because you really don't have all of the answers to the world's problems).
If you distract your child with food, presents or vacations - you will teach them to look to food, gifts or vacations for their biggest problems.
What's a truer and better message? The truer and better message is the news that God's way is a way of love, life, and forgiveness.
Studying great stories like John 4 in the Bible can show a child both a story and an example of a Savior who chases the outcast, listens carefully, and loves people from different racial backgrounds. It's a message worth learning, and teaching, and proclaiming.
Build Positive Tiny Habits
Maybe your child wants to change the world. Maybe you do. To change the world, we'll all have to take steps towards change. And how does a child begin taking steps? Wobbly, misdirected, but hopefully celebrated!
Every big thing started with a small step. Check out this principle in mother depth with "Atomic Habits," by behaviorist BJ Fogg). Fogg suggests that true behavior change starts small and ends with a celebration.
So, start something very small and very achievable with your child and then celebrate. Pick something kind. Pick something strategic. Pick something you can partner with them to achieve. Perhaps you can write a note to a neighbor or send a kind text to build a bridge with someone you haven't spoken with in a while. Get used to taking these steps. Then you can take bigger steps. Perhaps you can mow someone's lawn, invite them to dinner, or sign up for a service project. Then, celebrate each little step with a high-five, a little dance, or a "you rock!" comment.
Even better - ask your child for ideas! What little habit would they like to being? What positive habit would they suggest today? Then set an example by following through on a tiny, achievable, positive behavior. Then make it a habit. Who, knows? Maybe it'll make the news.
We could use some good news, and it may as well start with us.