When little ones learn of the bad things in the world

Try to remember what it was like when you were small and you lay in bed in the dark at night, afraid. If you have a better than average memory, you can recall the monster under the bed, the witch in the closet, the skeleton that tapped at your window with a bony finger.

Maybe you smile now when you remember those fears, because of course there was no monster, no witch, no skeleton – only shadows and a tree branch being blown by the wind.

You were probably 3 or 4 years old. You called for mom or dad to come protect you and maybe they came and sat beside you for a while; maybe they came and yelled at you to go to sleep; but whichever, mom or dad was there, and pretty soon it was morning.

Fast forward through a year or two of mornings, to the day you realized that while they could protect you from monsters under the bed, there were real monsters in the world against whom they just might be helpless.

  • How were they going to protect you from a kidnapper climbing in the window if they were sound asleep in their bed down the hall?
  • How were they going to save you from a fire suddenly engulfing the house; hadn’t you seen a father crying on the evening news because he’d been unable to get through the flames to rescue his little boy?
  • What if a robber broke down the door, and that robber had a gun?
  • What if there were a flood, or a tornado, or an earthquake, bigger and stronger than any grown-up could possibly be?

At those memories, we bet you stop smiling. That’s a terrifying moment – the one in which you discover that your parents aren’t gods.

Now you’re the parent of course, wondering what to say to your fearful child when he realizes that you’re not godlike. You are confident in your ability to comfort your child when he is younger and afraid of the products of his own imagination, but you are unsure of what to say when he asks about something he’s seen on television or heard about from his friends – something all too real. Is it true? he might ask. Did that really happen?

You don’t want to lie. But listen to the question. What is he really asking? Probably what he wants to know is, “Could that happen to me and to my family?” And what he needs to hear from you isn’t that bad things don’t happen, but reassurances that you are not helpless; that you know what to do.

Yes, houses catch on fire, but you have a smoke detector, you know how to call the fire department, and you know how to get everyone out of the house.

Yes, there are tornados, but you know the part of the house where the beams are strong and the family can go until the storm blows over.

You know how to keep him safe. Those things are not for him, but for you to worry about.

Your attitude and tone of confidence will be as reassuring as the words you use. By the same token, if every time there’s a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder you visibly cower and rush to switch on the weather channel, it will be noticed. Try to take control of your own fears even in a potential crisis and certainly in an actual one. Your reaction is vital to your children’s sense of security, so for their sake, continue if at all possible to exude confidence and constancy. Collapse later, in private.

And then there’s the Big Question that they are going to ask sooner or later: are YOU going to die?

A Victorian parent might have answered, yes, I am going to die and you are going to die; everyone is going to die, so you’d better be very, very good every day because you never know if it’s going to be your last; you could very well die in your sleep tonight.

Those Victorian parents must not have realized what the children were really asking, which was, surely, “Are you going to die when I am still little and so desperately in need of you?” Knowing that, your answer would be more like, “I’m not going to die for a very long time, and I’ll be here to take care of you until you are grown up and have children of your own.”

Pardon us for a diverting story about one of the Grandmothers’ adorable grandchildren. One very precocious just-barely-3- year-old girl asked her grandma when she was going to die. Grandma took the girl on her knee and gave her several paragraphs about the seasons of life, and how she planned to be around until the child had children of her own – until her mommy was a grandmother, in fact, and that all this was very beautiful and not at all sad. The little girl listened quietly, and then asked, “When you die, can I have your shoes?”

So we are advised to listen carefully to our children’s questions, and also to what they say when they don’t know what questions to ask, or if they don’t seem to feel reassured by our reassurances.

Ask, “Why do you think it could happen?” or “You look worried; I’m wondering what worries you.” Try to find out what he or she has observed or been told – and certainly don’t dismiss those fears, not even the monster-under-the-bed ones.

Do both: take his worries seriously but also offer reassurances that you know how to keep him safe.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

When the little one is acting sneaky

A while ago I visited a friend and her family. One afternoon I found myself in the kitchen with Janine, her lively little 4-year- old. She was playing with a puzzle and I was helping prepare dinner and her mother had gone into the garden. She suddenly looked around and pushed a small stool against the cupboards. She glanced behind, climbed up and reached to the back of the shelf from which she pulled a chocolate.

Holding it tightly, she jumped back on to the floor, pushed the stool back to its proper position and hurried over to her play area. The chocolate was hastily unwrapped and devoured and the wrapper was immediately buried in the garbage can. She returned to her puzzle.

I was a visitor and knew full well by the look on her face and her hurried and furtive movements that the hidden candy was out of bounds and this little girl knew it. I neither said nor did anything.

In retrospect I should have immediately wondered with her if she was into something she should not have been, and that maybe Mommy had warned her not to eat the candy. I should have suggested that she’d feel bad if she did something she knew Mommy wouldn’t like.

Instead I watched with fascination as she found an inventive, rather athletic way to reach the forbidden candy. The truth of the matter was that now we both felt guilty – Janine for breaking a rule even if she didn’t get caught, and I for allowing it to happen without some gentle, adult intervention.

Who among us can honestly claim to have never been sneaky about anything – particularly if we define it as doing something forbidden, on the sly?

Sneakiness and lying in young children often infuriates parents and teachers. It’s interesting that in adulthood our own sneaky histories are not only remembered in great detail but often humorously shared with friends. We remember exactly what we did and whether we were caught or got away with it. It was the guilt that imprinted these memories.

It’s unwise to accuse a 4-year old of being a sneak or if, when caught and she denies it, a liar. These are strong words to use and aren’t any more help than looking away – as did I.

Adults rightly feel an obligation to discourage children from being sneaky or telling lies, and there are lessons to be taught about rules and the truth. But nothing is to be gained by severely punishing them when they transgress.

Severe admonitions simply result in a small child’s trying to survive the fear of a parent’s anger or the possibility of being spanked – rather than feeling bad about what they had done and regretting it. Terrifying children with angry words and punishment might well drive them further into more inventive sneakiness and lying and more creative ways to avoid being caught.

Young children’s sneakiness can be attributed to wanting something that is missing or forbidden, an urge they have that can’t be satisfied. Their wishes are very strong at this young age; having those wishes denied results in angry feelings. They feel they haven’t been able to get enough when being aboveboard with Mom and Dad, so the impulse to get what they want trumps the newly learned rules and all other feelings.

When caught, young children often lie. It’s an indication that they wish they had done the right thing and, rather than feeling uncomfortable about what they have done, they invent a new reality that would seem to make things better: they lie. They really don’t want to deliberately deceive others in order to “get away” with their forbidden acts.

Believe it or not, this lie can often be a confession, because the discomfort of a sneaky act or the lie that follows is almost more than they can bear.

By 4 years of age Janine already knew many of the family “rules” and knew the candy was not to be taken without permission. She knew her mother would be angry and would certainly scold her had she been caught mid-theft. She also predicted that if she had asked, she would have been denied the candy.

So how to approach your young child when you’re sure this sneaky behavior will land her in prison one day? Contrary to the way I reacted to Janine’s behavior, it would have been far more helpful for me to talk to her about taking something forbidden and about how bad she would feel inside if she did.

Recognizing with her how much she wanted the forbidden candy, for example, and how hard it was not to grab that piece when no one was looking might have helped her hear me. Suggesting we talk to Mom about a time when she might have one would be important or if she can’t, making that clear and finding a substitute food or activity.

Approval by parents is very powerful in young children. So much depends on this strong relationship and a child’s wish to keep it close. It often leads to children denying themselves something they badly want just to maintain it. At first it works when the parents are nearby, but not when they are absent. It’s for this reason baby sitters can have difficulty with a child’s behavior. Eventually it becomes the child’s job to keep the rules in mind even in the absence of  parents. But that is a skill that takes time to learn.

So take heart and don’t fret if your preschooler takes a wrapped chocolate from the shelf when she thinks you’re not watching, or if she denies it when caught. Try not to accuse her or jump to conclusions. Also be aware that nighttime fears often show up as a sign of your child’s inner worries about naughtiness or temptations. Alone in bed, these forbidden acts surface and she fears punishment. As hard as it is, allow her to let you know when she has been sneaky or has lied, and do your best to keep the communication open.

With your help, as your child gets older, the rules will be remembered and her behavior will be modified. If all goes well, by around 5 years or 6 years of age her conscience will be all-powerful and she will be consumed with rules and whether things are fair.

It’s a big developmental step for your child and you can take pride in how she then begins to manage these temptations and any need to be sneaky or to lie when caught will eventually diminish or disappear.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dealing with stranger anxiety

Parenting has always been stressful, but now more than ever it seems. So my heart goes out to moms and dads who struggle with the issue of how to keep their children safe without instilling undue fear – fear that can lead a child to heightened levels of stranger anxiety.

Stranger anxiety is a normal part of development that occurs in most children around the age of 6 or 7 months, and it may last until the child’s first birthday or so.

At this stage, children are very attached to their primary providers, and they may experience considerable distress when in the company of people with whom they are unfamiliar. Often, they show this distress by hiding behind their parents, quietly peeking at the stranger and loudly protesting if he or she makes any overtures.

When this kind of behavior is seen in older children, I often wonder about angry feelings they may be experiencing. Are those aggressive feelings being projected outward and making the world seem like a very unsafe place?

This is typical of what you find in children who are terrified of the boogey man, burglars, ghosts, etc. As one savvy boy put it, “I think that’s just my mad feelings coming back to get me.”

So, what do you do?

First and foremost, keep your cool. Children are masters at picking up on their parents’ anxiety.

Very matter-of-factly reinforce the importance of not talking to strangers. But then, prepare the child in advance for situations where contact with strangers will be unavoidable – like at the airport, as an example.

You can say things like: “Mommy and daddy will be with you and keep you safe.” Or if a school field trip is planned, you might offer: “When you go to the museum, there will be strangers, but you’ll be with your teacher. And the school staff will keep you safe.”

Also, remind your child about police officers, whose job is to keep us safe.

If you suspect your child is projecting his/her own anger, encourage the use of words for feelings. “You seem angry; I wish you could tell me about it.” If your child seems scared of strangers to the point of panic, seek professional help.

More Parenting Tips available at www.westpsychotherapy.com.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Helping your children in the wake of the latest school shooting

It’s amazing how routine it’s become to hear news of violence that affects children. Does news of yet another school shooting still affect you quite the same way it did when we heard about Sandy Hook?

If so, our first reaction on hearing the latest is to hug our children tightly. If not, if you’ve grown numb, keep in mind that young children who hear about it are learning of such things for the first time. And it’s hard to think they won’t learn about it without some extra consciousness on your part.

Because in the days and weeks that ahead, children will be exposed again and again to replays of the scary images from the original event. They will seek to understand what they see and hear, trying to put it into the context of what they know about the normal and expected.

The amount of information children need from parents in such situations differs depending on the child and, of course, his or her age. Here are a few resources to help talk with your children about recent news of school violence.

Blog post from The Hanna Perkins Grandmothers: Some insight into the questions children really have – though they may have trouble finding the right words. And how to answer those questions simply and lovingly.

Another perspective by Shari Nascon on talking to your kids when they hear of tragic news that in some way hits close to home.

Article from the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood:  A three-part approach to talking with children about school violence …

  1. Protecting and supporting
  2. Discussing
  3. Individualizing

… and how to put it into practical use.

Fred Rogers’ advice on how to talk about tragic events in the news: An excerpt from Mr. Rogers’ last book before his 2003 death, offering practical suggestions for helping your children navigate news of the tragedy.

 Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Another tragedy: Addressing it with your children


This article was previously published, and has been updated to reflect the latest events.

We work so hard to protect the innocence of early childhood in our family’s microcosm: Be gentle with the kitty. Put the cap back on your marker. Water the flower a little — not too much — so it can keep growing. Walk around the wriggly worms on the rainy day’s sidewalk.

All the tiny nuances of awareness that we try to give to our kids.

When something large and tragic happens in the world around us — as with the mass shooting in Las Vegas or natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Maria — it affects us all. We bear witness. We empathize. We wonder what it would be like if it happened to us, our loved ones, our children.

It can be too much to bear, and we may slip a little in maintaining the protective bubble we’ve put around our children. We might try to talk in code about the tragedy – thinking our kids won’t notice what the grown-ups are talking about. We might let our guard down about sheltering kids from the media – because we desperately want and need more information out of the wish to have the world feel right again.

So, in this awful moment, what can we, as parents, educators, care providers do for young children?

  1. Go easy on yourself if you slip up. Notice that you might have talked in front of a child, forgive yourself for the understandable slip, and tend to what that child might have heard. Start with something simple: “I think you heard the grown-ups talking and I bet you have some questions,” or “I know I usually don’t watch the news when you are in the room. You must have some thoughts about what the news person was talking about.”
  2. Don’t guess at what the child does or doesn’t know. Ask for their thoughts and theories. This is a great rule of thumb for any of life’s difficult moments: Spend more time listening than talking. Your job is to contain what the child has been exposed to, to garner his or her ideas and  provide compassionate corrections for what has been misunderstood.
  3. Don’t give out any additional details, other than what’s needed to correct the child’s theories. If we find the details overwhelming as adults, then the details are not appropriate for children on the periphery of the tragedy. By this I mean that unless a child is in a geographic or social radius that connects them directly to the tragedy, then the child does not need details. Children on the periphery only need reassurance that their trusted grown-ups know how to keep them safe and that the people far away who have been through something scary are getting good help.
  4. If a child is within a geographic or social radius of the tragedy, it is important to slow down and think together with someone who knows a lot about child development about how best to address the child’s concerns. This mustbe individualized. There is no standard way to help a child integrate tragedy.
    We have some professional guidelines (Do things in bearable bits; Keep what routines can be kept to provide reassurance; Know that children process things differently than adults; Avoid euphemisms …) but cannot do written justice to the help that is needed in these situations. If you care for a child whose life has been touched by tragedy, reach out for developmental guidance. If you don’t know how to find someone in your community, contact us and we will help you find someone.
  5. Demonstrate to your child that our lives keep structure, even when there is something tragic going on for people we care about. We still eat, sleep, go to school and work, make art, play, notice nature, read, make music, even laugh. It is not disloyal to our community or our loved ones to still take pleasure in the world – even if we are mindful of suffering at the same time.
  6. Turn off all media. The images and narratives seem to pop up and surprise the grown-ups. Do not take any chances with what your child might be exposed to. Even during children’s programs we will sometimes see ads for news programs. It is just not worth the risk of overwhelming your child. Rely on favorite CDs, DVDs, apps or tech-free entertainment. A child who is not in the geographic or social radius of tragedy need not hear about it accidentally.
  7. If your child has been exposed to even a tiny piece of information, take the time to slow down and listen to what he or she heard or saw. Children (and adults) are traumatized by information that is not easily integrated into their understanding of the world. As therapists we know  there is always a way to integrate difficult things into our understanding – it just takes time, compassion, repetition (therefore patience), and a willingness to put things into words.
    Knowledge does not get woven into our awareness with one 5-minute conversation; it takes revisiting over and over.
    (Think about how many times you have to tell your children they must hold hands to cross the street or not to hit the dog … if it takes that many times with simple safety, then it takes that many times with big things like tragedy and loss.)

As therapists, this is what we do: We help parents find compassionate, containing words so they can have the conversations over and over, so their children can take in life’s experiences without becoming overwhelmed.

As community members, our thoughts are with the victims, families, and first responders in Las Vegas – and around the world.

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Talking about tragic events in the news

From the Fred Rogers Co.

The way that news is presented on television can be quite confusing for a young child. The same video segment may be shown over and over again through the day, as if each showing was a different event. Someone who has died turns up alive and then dies again and again. Children often become very anxious since they don’t understand much about videotape replays, closeups, and camera angles.

Understanding what children observer surrounding big events, and helpful hints for talking to them about it.

Read the article

Family Communications – now named the Fred Rogers Co. – was founded by Fred Rogers in 1971 as the non-profit producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for PBS. The company extended Fred’s values and approach to other efforts in promoting children’s social, emotional, and behavioral health and supporting parents, caregivers, teachers and other professionals in their work with children.

Talking with children about school violence

From the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood

Published 2009

Worrisome events like school violence are terribly upsetting to all of us. It’s hard enough for adults to make sense of such horrific events; just imagine how difficult it is for children to wrap their minds around concepts like violence, evil and death. Children react in individual ways to scary events depending upon their age and psychological makeup. To help them understand frightening real-life events, such as school violence, wars, terrorist strikes, hurricanes and so forth, the Lucy Daniels Center recommends a three-part approach: (1) protecting and supporting, (2) discussing and (3) individualizing.

Read the article

Lucy Daniels Center is a member of the Alliance of Psychoanalytic Schools.