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How to talk to your kids when they witness a scary event

Last summer a freak accident occurred in our community where a huge tree fell near a children's museum, injuring several children.  I'm grateful to Hanna Lim, who wrote the post below on her Lollaland blog, where she included some suggestions I offered at the time.

I'm reposting those recommendations now with Hanna's permission, hoping they might be helpful to you when your kids witness or hear about something scary or traumatic.  As always, it all comes down to "The Four S's":  helping kids feel Safe, Seen, Soothed, and Secure.

 

When [Freak] Accidents Happen

Posted on July 29, 2015 by Hanna Lim

I'm not sure if you heard the news, but "a 75-foot-tall, 75-year-old pine crashed without warning at around 5 p.m. just outside the Kidspace Children's Museum and fell onto kids at a summer day camp Tuesday, injuring eight children, two of them critically, fire officials said." (http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/including-children-hurt-falling-tree-kids-museum-32745551)  

Well, my two daughters (ages 6 and 7) were attending that camp and apparently standing less than 20 feet away from the tree when it fell.  When I arrived on the scene I was immediately notified that camp was being held directly under and near the tree when it fell.  The staff notified each parent whether his/her child(ren) was safe, and the police kept us all well-informed and calm as we waiting over an hour for our children to be released back to us. My girls are safe and unscathed, but my eldest was sobbing before bed as she shared with us that she saw her friend, Joy, get hit by the tree and go to the hospital.  I believe Joy's still in critical condition, so our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all the children who were injured.  

I am so thankful to the camp counselors and Kidspace Museum staff for keeping our children safe and in good spirits.  Thank you, also, Pasadena Police and Pasadena Fire Departments for your incredibly fast response.  You were all absolute rockstars.  

This was such a harrowing experience.  At least 1 firetruck and 1 ambulance passed me on my way to pick my girls up yesterday, but I thought nothing of it, until I pulled up to the scene.  I teach my children to say no to strangers, look both ways before crossing the street, but what can prepare them for freak accidents like these?  Nothing, really.  I guess it's all about how we choose to deal with the aftermath.  

Please say a prayer for all the children and families involved, and take a moment to peruse the resources listed below.  Finally, let this be another reminder to cherish each and every moment and live life to its fullest.  

The school psychologist at my children's school, Dr. Tina Bryson, suggests the following resources and steps to guide parents in talking with their children about the incident.

Helpful books/videos:

  • Verbal First Aid and The Worst is Over by Prager and Acosta
  • Trauma-Proofing our Kids by Dr. Peter Levine
  • Below find the link to a video with a few practical ideas from the book Verbal First Aid:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJp4Lrjs6qg

Steps to guide parents in talking with their children:

  • Soothe and comfort—non-verbal touch and holding as well as assuring words “The worst is over.  You are safe.”  
    • sometimes returning to things that settled your child when he/she was younger are good to pull back into your routine—a song you would sing to them or an old bedtime ritual can be comforting and help them feel safe
    • parents may need some additional self-care or support to be able to be a calm, assuring presence to their children since these experiences can be secondarily traumatizing to parents as well
  • Acting out behavior or heightened sensitivity or reactivity is to be expected for some children.  Consider these signs that they may need soothing, connected time with parents, slowing things down with lots of connection in order to soothe their little nervous systems.  
  • Name it to Tame it.  This is a technique in Dr. Tina Bryson's book The Whole-Brain Child, where we help children tell their stories about something scary.  When we help our children tell their story, the story should have the facts as the child remembers them, the emotions the child felt and feels, and a message of safety and resilience “There were lots of people who came to help.”  “You are safe.”  etc.
  • The most important thing is to help them feel safe and to assure them that you will listen, answer questions, and keep them safe.  Follow their lead on the questions and telling the story.
  • Help them find a way to do something active.  Draw a picture for someone who helped them, for someone else who was hurt, etc.  Give them a job that allows them to “help”.
  • Seek out professional help if your child’s distress begins to impact their appetite, sleep, or if their emotions begin to become overwhelmingly intense with feelings of depression or anxiety or panic.
  • Keep in mind that terrifying experiences are not always traumatizing.  There are many factors that contribute to whether or not a child is traumatized, but it’s important that parents don’t project their own trauma and that kids don’t hear their parents talking about “trauma”.  Pay attention to how your own child is experiencing the event.

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Parenting is transformative. Few experiences are as transformative as parenting. At its core, parenting is about transformation. One of our most important jobs as parents is to witness and influence the evolution of our children from wrinkly newborns with raw nervous systems into integrated, whole humans who know who they are and how to be in the world. And parenting obviously transforms us as well. There are smaller transformations—we learn to do most things “one-handed” while carrying a baby on our hip; we begin to eat at McDonalds; we memorize the names of dinosaurs; we learn to play video games again; we even buy a mini-van (which for some is a bigger transformation than for others). And there are huge, life-changing transformations—we adjust our priorities; we make sacrifices that cost us greatly; we learn to live with worrying and “what ifs”; we forever expand our hearts.

Along the way, we become more creative than we ever knew possible. I’m not talking about the creativity of artists, song-writers, or novelists. I’m talking about the creativity that’s required for survival for anyone caring for children. I knew I’d been forever transformed by my role as a parent when, in my attempt to get through to my non-compliant little streakers, creativity sprung forth from desperation and I made up a song with a chorus that began, “No naked butts on the furniture.” (Unfortunately, it was so catchy that one day I actually found myself singing it in the car by myself. As I said, parenting changes us.)

What’s more, transformation isn’t limited to people. We can also use our creativity to transform moments, so that the situations and circumstances we face can change into something else. Moments can be transformed for the worse, like when our downstairs brain shifts into overdrive and a sweet, bedtime cuddle turns into a fierce battle, complete with crying, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for all involved.   But likewise, we can transform moments for the good of ourselves and our children, so that an ordinary, everyday parenting challenge is converted into an opportunity for growth, connection, and relationship. And to do this, it almost always requires creativity.

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

Challenge transformed into opportunity.

For example, while eating at one of our favorite Mexican food restaurants, I noticed that my four-year-old had left the table and was standing behind a pillar about ten feet away. As much as I love him, and as adorable as he is most of the time, when I saw his angry, defiant face coupled with his repeated tongue-thrusting aimed at our table, “adorable” wasn’t the word that came to my mind. A few diners at surrounding tables noticed and looked at my husband and me to see how we were going to handle the situation. In that moment, Scott and I felt the pressure and judgment of those watching and expecting us to lay down the law about manners at a restaurant.

There are many ways to respond in moments like these. But in this moment, two choices popped into my mind as I walked over and crouched down eye-level with my son. Option #1: I could go the traditional “Command and Demand” route and open with a clichéd threat uttered in a stern tone: “Stop making faces. Go sit down and eat your lunch or you won’t get any dessert.”

Knowing my little guy, this verbal and non-verbal confrontation would have triggered all kinds of reactive emotions in his downstairs brain—the part scientists call the reptilian brain—and he would have fought back like a reptile under attack.  The situation would just escalate with this approach.

Or, Option #2: I could tap into his upstairs brain in an effort to get more of a thinking—as opposed to a fighting/reacting—response.

Now, I make plenty of mistakes as I parent my boys (as they’ll freely tell you). But just the day before, I had given a lecture to a group of parents about the upstairs and downstairs brain, and about using everyday challenges—the survival moments—as opportunities to help our kids thrive. So, luckily for my son, all of that was fresh in my mind. I went with Option #2.

I started with an observation: “You look like you feel angry. Is that right?” (Remember, always connect before you redirect.) He scrunched up his face in ferocity, stuck out his tongue again, and loudly proclaimed, “YES!” I was actually relieved that he stopped there; it wouldn’t have been at all unlike him to add his latest favorite insult and call me “Fart-face Jones.” (I swear I don’t know where they learn this stuff.)

I asked him what he felt angry about and discovered that he was furious that Scott had told him he needed to eat at least half of his quesadilla before he could have dessert. I explained that I could see why that would be disappointing, and I said, “Well, Daddy’s really good at negotiating. Decide what you think would be a fair amount to eat, and then go talk to him about it. Let me know if you need help coming up with your plan.” I tousled his hair, returned to the table, and watched his once-again adorable face show evidence of doing some hard thinking. His upstairs brain was definitely engaged. In fact, it was at war with his downstairs brain. So far we had avoided a blow-up, but it still felt like a dangerous fuse might be burning within him.

Within fifteen seconds or so, my son returned and approached Scott with an angry tone of voice: “Dad, I don’t want to eat half of my quesadilla. AND I want dessert.” Scott’s response perfectly dovetailed with my own: “Well, what do you think would be a fair amount?”

The answer came with slow, firm resolve: “I’ve got one word for you: Ten bites.”

What makes this un-mathematical response even funnier is that ten bites meant that he would eat well over half the quesadilla. So Scott accepted the counter-offer, my son happily gobbled down ten bites and then his dessert, and the whole family (as well as the restaurant’s other patrons) got to enjoy our meals with no further incidents. My son’s downstairs brain never fully took over, which, lucky for us, meant that his upstairs brain had won the day.

Again, Option #1 would have not only escalated things, but it also would have missed an opportunity. My son would have missed a chance to see that relationships are about connection, communication, and compromise. He would have missed a chance to feel empowered that he can make choices, affect his environment, and solve problems. In short, he would have missed an opportunity to exercise and develop his upstairs brain.

And I hasten to point out that even though I chose Option #2, Scott and I still wanted to address his behavior. Once our son was more in control of himself, and could actually be receptive to what we had to say, we discussed the importance of being respectful and using good manners in a restaurant, even when he’s unhappy.

Challenge met, opportunity seized, moment transformed. (This time, at least.)

It’s all about watching for the opportunities.

As parents, we look for all kinds of ways to teach our children, to nurture their development. And it’s great to take them to the museum, to piano lessons, to the observatory, to a baseball game. But we also want to pay attention to the rich, minute-by-minute opportunities we’re given, and creatively transform these moments as well. What this requires—and there are plenty of times when I’m not very good at doing it—is that we take ourselves off of auto-pilot and look at each moment with fresh eyes. And though it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, when we can step back and achieve a certain amount of critical distance from the situation at hand, that’s when we can begin to transform moments. And really, that’s just about the most we can hope for as parents. We can work hard to remain watchful for moments—hundreds of moments, large and small, throughout the day—and transform them, and allow them to transform us and our kids as well.

 

What Kids Need Most: You Being Present With Them

Here’s my response to all the parents out there who worry that they’re not doing all the “right things” with their kids. [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ6SPIW64w4[/youtube]

A Parent’s Anti-Bubble-Wrap Manifesto

Bubble-wrap is to protect things that are fragile, to cushion them so they don’t become damaged if they get jostled or banged around.  

Our kids are precious, but they’re not fragile.  They’re not delicate.

When we bubble-wrap them and protect them from any injury, any distress, or any potential challenge, we actually make them more fragile.  We communicate to them, “I don’t think you can handle this, and you need me to shelter you.”   In so doing, we deny them the privilege of the practice of feeling and sitting in discomfort and finding their way out, and of seeing that they are strong and resourceful. 

The more we bubble-wrap our kids, the more fragile they become. 

Want your children to believe that you believe in them?  Want them to be resourceful and resilient?  Want them to be able to develop a sturdy, robust bandwidth for tolerating challenges, and then rise to meet them?  Want them to know that they are not victim to their emotions and their circumstances? 

Then let them feel.  Let them wrestle with indecision, with discomfort, with discouragement and disappointment. 

Our job is not to rescue them from hard things and uncomfortable feelings.  Our job is to walk with them through their difficult moments with connection and empathy, allowing them to feel, allowing them to be active participants in problem-solving, and allowing them to discover the depth of their own capacity. 

It’s out of our deep love for our children that we want to protect them, but their capacity will be greater, their spirit larger, if we allow that love to lead us to our own courage, so that we can feel strong enough to let them discover their own strength.  

Eight Things You Say Without Talking

Most parents are mindful about their words. But our nonverbals also speak volumes to our kids.

In fact, we’re communicating all the time, often without even thinking about it.  Consider the last time you were with your kids at a piano recital, or a religious service.  You know, one where they really had to stay quiet.  When the squirming began, you might have been able to give a look or a touch that said, “This event is very important to me, and I need you to sit still, but I love having you here with me. It won’t be too much longer.” 

Or, you might have pulled out a completely different look, one that was offered with eyebrows raised as high as possible, and kind of means the opposite of “I love having you here with me.”

Your child’s whole day can turn on something you’re not even cognizant of, something that’s not even said. Something as simple as your smile—or your touch—can soothe a disappointment and strengthen your bond.   Or your nonverbals can do just the opposite.

I'm not saying there won't be times when you'll get completely exasperated with your kids.  Or that they won't misread something you're communicating and get upset.  Mistakes will be made on both sides of the relationship, of course.  But we can still be intentional about the messages that we're sending.

Here are four things you do not want—and four more that you do want—to be saying to your kids, even when you don’t utter a word.

Nonverbal Messages You DON’T Want to Send:

A deep, huffy sigh = exasperation

The message: You wear me out. I can’t stand you right now, and I blame you for making things so hard on me.

A clenched jaw or gritted teeth = fury. 

The message: I am furious with you and could explode at any moment. I’m unpredictable right now. Be afraid, very afraid. I’m not really in control of myself, and this is how people act when they are really mad.

Frantic rushing around = stress. 

The message: Don’t talk to me right now—and if you do, make it quick. I’m fragile at this moment, so if you stress me out any further, I might lose it. You better walk on eggshells and not make my life any harder.

Aggressive body posture = anger. 

The message:  You better do what I say—and now! I don’t care how you feel or what the circumstances are. I’m going to fight until I win, and I’ll continue to escalate and become more aggressive until I do. Power, control, and aggression are how I get what I want here.

 

Nonverbal Messages You Do Want to Send:

A big ol’ squinty-eyed smile = delight

The message: I think you are fantastic, and you fill me with joy. You bring fullness and wonder into my world and I love being with you.

An authentic belly laugh = appreciation. 

The message: You are funny and clever, and I enjoy you. I want to join with you in how you see things. You have my attention and I’m having fun with you.

A locked-in, responsive look = empathy/compassion.

The message: What you’re sharing with me right now is crucial—more important than anything going on around us, more important even than anything I could be saying right now. I hear that you’re really upset, and all I want to do at this moment is listen to you and be present—so I can comfort you the best I can.

A loving touch = support/camaraderie.

The message: I know you face a big day at school with challenges I’m not always aware of, but this little shoulder massage while you eat your Lucky Charms says that I’ll be thinking of you, missing you, and eager to see you again this afternoon. And this Family-Movie-Night foot rub while we watch Monsters Inc.—for the sixth time—says that although I won’t always I have just the right words to say, I will always be here for you.

 

This article originally appeared on mom.me.