Don’t break them: How to tell little innocent hearts big terrible news

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.

Miracles take (a long) time

It’s my birthday today, and a good day for birthing. Birthing is a miraculous process. In an instant your life, in that new life, is in your hands. The internal hope now open to the world, and everything instantly irrevocably changes. It is eternity in a moment.

Miracles can seem immediate but actually take a long time the way I see it. I carry love for a deep faith that helps me navigate uncertainty. But I’ve noticed recently that in my hearing stories of miracles over and over again, if I’m not careful, I lose the appreciation of time. It is a lifetime before a promise of a child is fulfilled, generations before an answer is made visible. We see the end of the story – and it works out – but miracles take time. Even what seems instantaneous was hoped for, for a time, before seen.

I struggle with this. It is so easy to judge myself on what of my work can be seen now – how ‘productive’ it is, what it is doing, how it has changed or grown, how it is measured. The quirky part of this has me gravitate to hobbies with ‘tangible outputs’ like knitting (yes) and art – when I make time. The slippery slope of this is a punishing perfection, where if it’s not judged by me as some worthwhile output that doesn’t even exist yet, it’s hard to even start. Is any of this familiar to you?

Well with all that, welcome to this space. I’ve been writing more recently because it helps me process all the EVERYTHING happening now. Knowing this sharing helps others, helps me too, but I’m releasing the rest of it. No promises or warranties made here. Perfection . . . psssshhhhh! This is a little corner where I share advice I’m reaching for myself. I am always looking for experiences like mine at the intersection of mothering, womanhood, career, faith, family, and identity, with a good dose of ‘feel good’ to encourage me along. Those intimate spaces are hard to come by, and emotional work to share. I am always looking for these brave vulnerable souls, but they are busy raising and loving their families, tending their own dreams, surviving . . . that’s what I’m trying to do anyway. So, welcome. Hopefully you will find something to help you along your journey here. Every day is a good ‘birth’ day. Every effort, a worthy beginning. I am taking as many beginnings as I need and I’m here to encourage you to do the same and hold your own miracle.

More to come . . .