The death of the nine year old girl in the Tucson shooting had a strong emotional impact throughout the country. Mothers and fathers identify with the child’s parents and are overcome by the thought of losing one’s child. Children identify with the child and wonder if this could happen to them. As parents we confront two sets of emotions when we talk to our children about events as traumatic as this one.
But even matters closer to home can seem too hard to talk about. Sometimes our own emotions get in the way of recognizing or understanding our children’s emotions. Children are concrete and quite literal about things, often responding in matter-of-fact ways that we may misunderstand as unfeeling or uncaring. A mother reported that her son, in talking to his grandmother about something he would do when he was older, said cheerfully, “You will be dead by then.”
Another mother wondered how best to prepare her young daughter for the impending death of a family member. In answer to my question the mom said the child did not have any concept of death, had not had a pet that died, nor had it ever been discussed at home. Yet she later reported, that while driving, they passed a cemetery and the girl spontaneously said, “Oh look, a cemetery. That’s where they put dead people”.
Children are much more aware of what is going on around them than we think they are. Particularly in our media age children are exposed to many more things than we might wish them to be. When we think they are not aware of something, it is often because we would like them not to be – because of our own feeling that it is too difficult, or too painful. We want to spare our children the pain we ourselves are feeling, and may think the way to do that is to avoid talking about it.
At other times we may minimize the importance of an event as a way of denying its impact on a child. A young boy told me a fantastic story about his cat, which had been put to sleep. The family had many pets in the past and did not appreciate the child’s attachment to this particular cat. His disjointed story was about an adventure the cat had, which ended with the cat now up in the sky. When I asked him if he thought this was really what had happened, he sadly said it wasn’t. He was clearly struggling to cope with his confusion about what had happened and his feeling of loss.
We sometimes find ourselves trying to protect our children from things that are inevitably part of life. There are many kinds of losses, not only the death of a pet, but a friend moving away, a loved baby sitter leaving, even separation from mom when starting school. We wish our children did not have to experience these things, and want to protect our children from being hurt by these losses. There is also a fear that our children’s emotional well-being will be damaged in some way. These worries interfere with our ability to talk to children not only about real things, but more importantly about their feelings and our own.
Real things that are often painful happen in life. Loved ones die, friendships end, we leave our parents. Even usual developmental steps involve giving up earlier pleasures, which is sometimes difficult to do. The question is not how to avoid painful things – which we can’t do, anyway – it is how can we as parents help children gain the mastery and strength to deal with them. Just as we provide the nutrients children need for their bodies to grow, we need to help them develop the mental and emotional muscles they need to confront things that are painful.
These days when there seems to be a pill for everything, it’s easy to get the idea that we’re not supposed to be unhappy or uncomfortable about anything. Bad feelings are suspect. Yet it is a child’s ability to bear unpleasant feelings, particularly sadness and anger, that will help him better confront many of life’s events. A parent’s willingness to help children recognize their feelings, express them appropriately, and cope with them, is a most important part of achieving such mastery.
It is by confronting difficulties and working our way through them, that we get stronger and gain confidence in our own abilities. And it is by supporting children through this process that parents help their children grow.