I’m a licensed psychotherapist (MFT), and I’d like to offer the following to help you parents deal with your children when so much that is scary to them is happening locally and internationally.
It is impossible for your children to not notice things like fires burning homes down, or hearing about gang violence, murders of children, store robberies and the like. It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from ugly realities and have them immersed in their innocence as long as possible; it’s just a bad idea not to answer their questions, even when the subject matter brings a sense of horror to your own heart.
I’ve gotten a number of emails inquiring about how to answer questions like: “Why would God let all those homes burn down?” As children develop their notions of the Divine from whatever house of worship you attend, they tend, with their yet immature perspectives, to equate God with one of the characters in a Disney feature film with a magic wand, carpet or genii.
“Honey, God didn’t burn down anybody’s home; God created all the wonderful trees and flowers, and left it up to us to keep them trimmed, make our homes as fire-safe as possible, and not be careless with fire…as were those college students at the Tea Garden in California.”
An answer such as this places responsibilities on humans to take care of all their blessings, lest unfortunate, sad, and desperate things happen.
“Dad,” your child may have asked after Black Friday, “Why did those people crush the man in Wal-Mart? ” “Sweetie,” sometimes people get so focused on what they want or what they think they need – you know, they get greedy-that they don’t even notice they are hurting other people’s feelings or bodies.”
“Mommy, why are those terrorist people blowing other people up all over the world?” “My love, there are people who wish to believe that they and their way of living and believing about God is the only way. When people are unable or unwilling to share the world with others’ beliefs (as long as those beliefs do no harm to others), this is the sort of ugly thing that they do.”
“Mom, will they come here to get us too?” “Well, sweetie, it is possible and that is why we have so many police all over the world getting information and doing things to stop them. Since 9/11, we’ve been saved by our government staying alert. And God forbid, should something more happen here, we will have the courage to stand against it.
I realize I sound like I’m politicizing some of these issues, and I don’t really mean to. I’m simply pointing out how I believe you, as parents, should handle the questions your children ask. Don’t hide from the questions; don’t lie for the sake of a false sense of security. Children need to know – age appropriately – the realities of life within the context of something they can hold on to to feel safe or at the very least, prepared.
Some of the situations you’ll have to contend with are far more personal. For example, “Why is Mom/Dad leaving us?” “Grandpa died when he was asleep. Could I die when I go to sleep?” “Cousin Andrea is having a baby and she’s only 15 years old. Can I have a baby, too?” “Why did Uncle George kill himself? What made him so sad? I get sad too sometimes.”
In each situation, you must fill the vacuum of the child’s lack of understanding with something that makes sense – or they will fill it with ideas that are far more destructive than the truth. Always be reassuring that they are loved, will be taken care of, and that because something happens to someone they love, it doesn’t mean it will happen to them.
And always try to leave a moral message. For instance, “As for Cousin Andrea, don’t you think it is better for a baby to have a grown-up, married Mom and Dad like you have?” This answer takes it from the “romantic” and brings it home.