If you’ve been paying attention to any news anywhere in the last few weeks, you’ve probably experienced a range of emotions from grief and fear to rage and confusion and everything in between. Stories of gun violence, religious extremism (of multiple religions and many forms), and messages of hate have filled the media and intruded in our lives. When our nervous systems are assaulted like this, it can be hard to know what to think. How do we make sense of the senselessness happening in the world? Many parents are asking, how can I help my children feel safe when I don’t even know how to calm myself down? I’d like to offer a few ideas based on my work as a family therapist and my experience with trauma, children, and communities affected by violence.
1. Find resources for you. Before you can soothe your child, you need to take a minute or two (maybe more) to check in with yourself and find some internal resources. This could mean thinking of a time when you felt really safe or peaceful or calling a friend who always seems to know what to say to help you feel better. Find an image, a memory or person that feels positive and grounding and take that in. Notice the subtle shifts in your breathing and body sensations when you think about this image or talk to this person. Keep coming back to this resource when you feel yourself getting upset. If you find that your ability to function is compromised, consider talking to a therapist with experience treating trauma who can help you find a path back to a feeling of safety.
2. Be present with your child’s big feelings. Circle of Security, an evidence-based early intervention program focused on improving the relationship between children and caregivers, recommends that parents instill a sense of safety in their children by sending the message that the parent is bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind. We may not feel big, strong, wise, or kind in the face of violence, but we only need to be bigger, stronger, and wiser than the child who needs us to protect them. When big feelings come up for kids, they need an adult to help organize these feelings. Never underestimate the power of being emotionally present with a child who is scared.
3. Engage in radical acceptance. Many adults struggle to be with children’s big feelings because they were punished by their own caregivers for having strong feelings. Acceptance of our own fear, sadness, and anger helps us to be present with those feelings in the children in our lives. Tara Brach, a psychologist, author and meditation teacher, summarizes the concept of radical acceptance with the phrase “this too.” “This too” calls us into the present moment to face head on that which we are attempting to avoid, ignore, minimize or deny. This too is part of the human experience, part of my human experience: this fear, this grief, this desire to demonize those who appear different from me. All of these feelings are part of me and part of my experience of the present moment. Running from these feelings often intensifies them. This video from Circle of Security shows how that works (or doesn’t) in parenting.
4. Help your child take action. Trauma responses often emerge as a result of the victimized person not being able to complete actions that would have felt effective against the violating force. (We can’t reach the brake fast enough to avoid hitting the other car. We freeze when the perpetrator approaches.) These incomplete actions can be stored as energy in the body and create a myriad of symptoms. A symbolic way to counteract this process for children who hear about violence in the world is to help them complete actions that feel effective in standing up to violence. This could mean collecting money or supplies for refugee families, helping to write letters to elected officials, or taking cookies to local firefighters. Similar to Fred Roger’s story about his mother showing him the helpers whenever he saw footage of a disaster, you want to remind your child that there are people who care about protecting others and that they can be a part of that community too.