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How To Talk To Kids About Pittsburgh (While Grappling With Your Own Grief And Fear)

People mourn in Soldiers and  Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum during a community gathering held in the aftermath of Saturday's deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (Matt Rourke/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
People mourn in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum during a community gathering held in the aftermath of Saturday's deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (Matt Rourke/AP)

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We can barely bear to write another one of these, one more guide to talking with kids about violent events. With each, one more bit of our souls dies. These events are things that should not be. Not now, not ever, not anywhere in the world.

But we still have a job to do, and if you’re a parent, so do you. For many, it’s an especially hard one this time around. This latest atrocity, the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, is much like the shootings in Orlando and Charleston: not simply a terrorist act, but an act of hate.

And this one comes in the immediate wake of the murders of two African-Americans in Kentucky, the pipe bomb threats against 12 leaders of the Democratic Party, the disparagement of migrating families seeking asylum, transgender people, many victims of sexual assault.

Parents, particularly minority parents — people of color, members of minority religious communities, non-heterosexual individuals, immigrants and victims of sexual assault — may have particular difficulty in talking with their kids at this moment.

Identifying with victims is the hallmark of empathy, but makes it still harder to live in the present and be available for our kids. For those who’ve experienced abuse, it is harder to remain calm and objective in times of re-experiencing trauma. But that is the state of mind we need for reassuring our children.

So how to respond to an act of hate? First, to recognize that the most insidious damage it wreaks is the profoundly crippling uncertainty and insecurity that it visits upon our very human potential. Humans are works in progress, and hate folds itself into that process like a virus. It can feed on our dreams and pervert our aspirations.

But second, not to let that happen to our children. That’s what we both learned from our grandparents. As Jewish immigrants, they embodied the resilience, the fortitude, the fervently held hope to rise above adversity. We know from their stories that they rose up not because of adversity but in spite of it. My (Steve's) great Uncle Morrie had a favorite saying: "Trust in God," he would say to me, "But be sure that you learn to swim."

He would say this with a twinkle in his eye and a song in his heart. It is this mixture of community and initiative that will help us through these dark times. And it starts with what we say to our children.

At times like these, amid our shock, grief and fear, we need to be particularly attuned to the impact an event like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting has on our children. Kids of all ages have questions and various emotional reactions — compounded all the more by the media footage and commentary they may be seeing.

No good can come from telling our children that their world has become too dangerous.

Full protection from exposure is impossible, and so we should instead be prepared to help our children process their feelings about this act of hate — and to provide comfort, reassurance and guidance. Their very well-being depends on our capacity to deliver this message. No good can come from telling our children that their world has become too dangerous.

As adults — and particularly if we identify with a group that has been the object of attack — we need now to engage with others, to foster a sense of community to help us feel connected and protected. Don’t worry alone; talk about what you are feeling with your partner, spouse, friends. It’s our relationships that hold us safely in this world. Remember, though you may be a minority, your status, combined with others who feel marginalized, is actually the majority of our nation.

And put on your own oxygen mask first. Make time for self-care through relaxing activities such as reading, listening to music, or exercising. Pace yourself in terms of the amount of information you choose to consume. Sometimes, though it’s hard, it’s best to just disconnect completely.

Now to the all-too-familiar “how to talk” advice.

What children need

Children need answers to three fundamental questions:
• Am I safe?
• Are you, the people who take care of me, safe?
• How will these events affect my daily life?

Parents should expect to answer these questions over and over again. For those with toddlers and preschool children who may not yet be able to express their concerns in words, it’s still important to reassure them that everyone is safe, and that life will continue in a normal fashion.

Here are some more general principles for children of all ages:

• Share your feelings with your children, and ask them to share their feelings with you. Let them know that it’s OK to be frightened, sad or angry; it’s all part of being human. Allow feelings of anger but try to re-direct misplaced feelings of hate.

• While you should try to answer your children’s questions at a level they can understand, remember that you may not have an immediate answer for everything. Some questions simply don’t have good answers.

• Most children will be able to cope with the support and understanding of their parents, teachers, coaches and community members. However, some who may be vulnerable due to previous personal experiences may require special attention from a school counselor or primary care provider.

Infants, Toddlers And Preschoolers

Very young children are more disturbed by their parents’ and caregivers’ distress than by the event itself. That’s why they’re more apt to be comforted by your actions than by your words. Spend additional time with them: provide more hugging, cuddling and play time.

Be patient and reassuring. Many will react with tantrums, sleep problems and/or aggressive or clingy behavior. If your kids want to sleep in your bed, it’s OK — especially at times of great stress.

Limit exposure to news coverage of the attack, at least when your children are in the room. Maintain normal routines and minimize unnecessary separations.

School-Aged Children

Children between the ages of 6 and 12 are more advanced in their thought processes. They have a clear sense of right and wrong but tend to be strictly rule-oriented. They have a simplistic view of “good guys” and “bad guys,” and feel safest when things are clear-cut. They also have a greater sense of empathy, and can appreciate the sadness or fear of others, including those they see on TV.

They are also not able to distance themselves emotionally from events and see things truly objectively. Therefore, they may “personalize” events, as if they happened or will happen to them or their families.

Remember that kids often work through their emotional issues with play instead of words. Don’t be surprised if your child uses toys to replay images of destruction they’ve seen or imagined. This is healthy, and can also give you insight into their fears and misunderstandings.

If your children are watching news reports of the attack, be in the room so that you can clarify what they’re seeing and hearing. In this case, however, it’s a good idea to limit their exposure altogether.

Remind your children that there are many, many more good people in the world than there are bad people, and that the good people will always try to protect them. Remind them that the perpetrator of this hate crime is not of any danger to them.

Let your children participate in efforts to make things better. This might include sending drawings or notes of sympathy to the congregation in Pittsburgh.

Help your children get back to “business as usual.” Keeping them to a normal schedule will help to reassure them.

Teenagers

Many adolescents will be terrified. That’s because they’re old enough to understand the implications of what happened in Pittsburgh, and they’re wondering if they, their families or friends will be subject to the same kind of hateful violence.

They’re also struggling with questions about prejudice, justice, power and control --and since they’ve likely seen some of the hateful political rhetoric, they may feel even more frightened. After all, they expect the leaders of our country to voice civility, law and justice. How do they reconcile their expectation of adult role models with promulgation of hate and vitriol?

Teens will watch the news and more likely hear about it on social media. Ask them about what they are seeing on digital media. Look at some of the posts together and talk openly about the ideas and feelings represented. Ask about how they understand what happened. Begin with open-ended questions about Pittsburgh and listen to their take on the tragedy.

Let your teenagers listen in as you discuss both the event and your feelings about it with other adults. If they join in, welcome their participation. The simple act of talking will go a long way toward helping them put their concerns into perspective. If they have misinformation, you will be able to help correct it. As with younger children, you can support their participation in efforts to make things better.

This is not the time to hunker down, demoralized and isolated. As a nation, we need to strengthen our efforts for rational, civilized discourse, starting at home and expanding outward.

Dr. Gene Beresin is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Steve Schlozman is co-director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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