This is a hard time. There is still good to be found in this time, there is still joy, but can I tell you . . . it feels like I’ve lived ten years in the last six months. Things have so rapidly and immutably changed. Like you, I’ve been trying to make sense of it while keeping a safe space for little hearts. It’s tough. Many things collide here. There’s the awful news itself, there are generational differences in parenting like how involved children are in family decisions, and there are cultural differences like how children are expected to interact with authority, to name a few. The way you learned something may, or may not, be the way you want to teach your children. This is written from a parent but really applies to anyone looking to talk through tough moments with someone they love. In this time of ghosting, DMs, and cancel culture, having tough conversations is a skill built on grace, thoughtfulness, and practice. These past few months I’ve stumbled through crushing conversations at work, with friends, with extended family, with my husband, and with my son especially. I’ve often felt unprepared, inadequate, and honestly sometimes even resentful that I have to have them in the first place. Nevertheless, from death to divorce to losing friends, friendships, and familiarity, these conversations need to be had. And there is no better person to guide them than you.
One of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life as a black mom was talk about the murder of George Floyd with my six-year-old black son. I watched the shadow cross his face, saw the furrow in his brow, and I knew some of my son’s innocence was gone. As much as I had tried to prepare, I knew almost immediately I didn’t get it right. It was the formal beginning of what is sure to be a heavy education on America’s race relations. I did not want to have that conversation. I know many people don’t (but I still hope you are, especially in America so we can do better). But part of parenting, and adulting in general, is saying hard things with love, giving guidance in difficult times, and helping our babies find footing in an unjust world.
Since that summer morning, I have been reflecting, seeking/hearing stories from other moms, and thinking about how to do it better. Now, what follows is non-professional advice for parents wondering how to approach emotionally-charged conversations with our littles, and I must give this disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional, and even if I was, this is not the forum. Events of trauma and family upset should not be navigated alone and this by no means is a shortcut or a substitute. With that in mind, here’s what I’ve learned as a mama trying to do her best.
Let them hear it from you
Whether it’s overhearing adult conversations, hearing from other family members or friends, or hearing over the television, sometimes innocent ears learn things we’re not ready for them to hear. Other times, we had every intention to tell them first, but someone beat us to it. Whatever the case, as soon as you identify an event or topic for discussion, make a plan to do it quickly. Also, in general, monitor media in your home: if no one’s watching it, turn it off.
Make a plan
Don’t do it alone. Do some research. Speak with your partner and family support about how to raise this topic. Even if your opinion differs on how to educate your child, you will benefit from a diversity of perspectives. However, in my opinion, being aligned with the other parent when delivering hard news is a must—united, you stand.
A large part of making this plan is deciding how much to share in an age-appropriate way. I did not have my son watch any videos at all. It is horrific and traumatic, and in my opinion, not suitable for his age. We did watch about twenty minutes of protests live on TV and then we talked about why they were happening. We also watched the SpaceX rocket launch earlier that day. (I really felt like I was in the 60s!) Watching both of these snapshots gave perspective on what was happening in the world and how it fit into the past.
It’s not about you
Your goal for the conversation should be to provide an informed fact base for your child to understand what’s going on. I know even facts are debatable sometimes, but your goal should be to provide information and have them understand their feelings about it. If the conversation is to make you feel better, vent your own feelings, or justify your actions or outlook, then it’s probably not serving your child. You may come across as defensive, or in the worst case, explain bad news and then give your child the added burden of managing your emotions.
Make space for your child’s emotions
Ask them how they feel, don’t tell them. While it’s tempting to say phrases like “It will be okay”, “Don’t cry”, or “Don’t be sad”, these may diminish your child’s feelings. A healthy dose of silence after delivery is what I try to do, followed by some open-ended questions like “How does that make you feel?” Or, “Is there anything else you want to know?” The most important thing is to reassure your child that they are safe, loved, and not alone with this news.
What to do now?
What do you want your child to learn from this conversation? I wanted my son to understand he was loved, and also, that he was not alone. I wanted him to learn compassion and feel empowered to make a change. One of the things that worked for us was to attend a protest in our community so he could see that other people cared. He could also see how to make a difference.
Part of the burden of bad news is that it can make us feel unsafe and helpless. Anything you can do so that your child does not feel that way is a step in the right direction. Activities of expression to process emotion help a lot. I would recommend having a family activity planned at home right after the conversation—something tactical that helps them process those big feelings with you next to them. Art is a great one!
It’s not “one-and-done”
Make sure to reassure your child that they can continue to have conversations about this and how it makes them feel. If any of those moments catch you off guard (pretty much guaranteed), come up with ways in advance for how to address them. I’ve found it best to say something like “That is a really important thought, I haven’t thought about it that way before. Can you tell me more?” It is also okay to say you don’t know, and you’ll think some more and get back to them.
They are watching you
All of this said, you have the greatest impact on how your child receives, processes, and reacts to this news. They will see how you take it and what you do. As part of your process, make space for your own emotions and engage your own support system to help you. At the end of the day, being the best you is going to be what’s best for them. It will help them feel safe and secure in unchartered territory.
I know we want them to not have to deal with it, and if we could protect them, we would. But, as cliché as it sounds, these moments really do build resilience, grit, and beauty into the awesome adults they are meant to be. They do lose some of their innocence, but they can also gain a sense of purpose, empathy, compassion, and self-confidence. Now, I’d be lying if I said that trading innocence for strength always feels like an even trade in light of some of this horrific news, but anything I can do to even the scales is worth the effort.
Wishing you courage for the conversation.