Ann Sherman, Nederland. Throughout the Mountain Strong Families Series hosted by TEENS, Inc, parents are learning about the findings of Dr. Dan Siegel (No-Drama Discipline). His research found that children need four things to become whole human beings and thrive in this world, to feel seen, soothed, safe, and secure. At the April workshop, parents gathered to discuss how to help their child process the recent tragedy in Boulder and feel safe on a daily basis.
Psychologists recommend avoiding the topic of violent tragedies if your child is under eight years old, unless they hear about the incident from friends, adult conversations, or the news.
Here are some valuable tips for parents who want to be the ones to help their child process fearful things and make sense of their world.
Find ways to grieve and work out your feelings before discussing the incident with your child. You need to be their sturdy rock when the world feels unstable. Then prepare for the conversation by thinking of a simple one sentence storyline that summarizes what happened. Stop and think about what beliefs, values, and emotions you want your child to glean from this tragic event. Hone your message because it will become their takeaway. Consider whether you want to tell them there are bad people or that sometimes people commit harmful acts. Will you suggest that they always be on their guard or that they should always be compassionate? Are you tapping into their sense of helplessness or are you helping your child be solution-oriented?
Shield children under eight from the news. The visuals will be extremely difficult for them to process. Before sharing your storyline, first ask what they have heard. See what questions they have. Listen to how your child is feeling. Talk about emotions, not just details. Help your child notice all the helpers who stepped up during and after this tragedy. This focus reassures your child that even in dark times, there is light, hope, and love in our world.
With middle and high schoolers, go beyond what happened to address cause and effect thinking. Help empower your child to actively work on solutions to this problem. Ask “What would you like to do? What can we do together?” Help your child move from feeling like everything happens to them to realizing they can be agents of social change.
Family rules, limits, routines, and rituals also create a sense of order and predictability in a child’s life. But if we want children to internalize our values and learn positive social skills, they have to feel safe with us. Kids may comply out of fear when we threaten and yell, but they will lack the self-control and decision-making skills to do right when adults aren’t present. Or kids may continue to be impulsive and disrespectful if we have not provided them with clear boundaries and structures.
The key is to be empathetic while offering clear behavioral boundaries. Even then, it is normal for kids to not comply a third of the time. But parents can up our chances for cooperation by allowing for and validating our child’s emotional reaction when they don’t like our rule. We can also create safety by being aware of our nonverbal communication. Children feel safer when we get down at their eye level. Cooperation is more likely when we purposely calm our tone of voice, soften our body, and decrease the intensity with which we are conveying displeasure with their behavior.
By responding with empathy and safety, we are wiring our child’s brain to expect that their needs will be met (but not necessarily their wishes,) so there is no reason not to cooperate with limits, i.e. “Let’s find a way for you to throw elsewhere since we don’t throw balls in the house.”
Here are some specific strategies for placing kind but firm limits on our children. Give transition time to comply, i.e. “What page are you on? Ok, finish that page and then set the table.” Use a few words instead of lecturing. Explicitly state what the child CAN do instead of using a stop command to tell them what they can’t do, i.e. “Tell your sister, ‘It’s my turn now’ instead of saying “Don’t grab!” Use when/then phrasing instead of nagging, threatening, or bribing, i.e. “The sooner X happens; the sooner Y can happen.” Whenever possible offer a couple of acceptable choices, i.e. “It’s time to clean up. What song should we clean up to?” Or, “Do you want to wear your sandals or your shoes today?” And involve your child’s thinking brain in problem-solving with you, i.e. “I’ve noticed we have a lot of fights about getting ready for school on time. What ideas do you have to make this go better?”
Expect resistance but ignore personal attacks. Children may spew out the most disrespectful thing they can think of, so you’ll know how upset they are. Rather than reacting to their words or tone, just say, “Ouch. You must be upset to say that to me. Tell me why you’re yelling. I’m listening.” Validate it when your child finds it hard to follow a limit, i.e. “I can see this is really hard for you.” Maybe there really is an effective way to stop being ignored or consistently challenged?
Finally, parents learned that it takes 25-plus years for children’s brains to learn how to organize their time, possessions, and responsibilities. One of the best ways to support a child’s higher order thinking skills is to create a visual chart (pictures plus verbs) for challenging activities. Weekday mornings, homework time, and getting kids to bed seem to be some of the most stressful moments of each day. Instead of constantly being frustrated with the child’s inability to complete a task, figure out how to break tasks into smaller steps, place them in logical order, build independence, and help children organize and manage their time and materials. Instead of constantly repeating yourself, point to the chart, saying, “You finished breakfast, what’s next on your list?”
Young children thrive when there are consistent morning and bedtime routines; teenagers blossom when they can follow a list for completing and turning in assignments. Families can also practice rituals (gratitude at mealtime, reassuring goodnight songs and stories, a re-unification practice after school, or a morning snuggle before rising) that produce predictability, meaning and connection for everyone in the family. For more ideas, join the Mountain Strong Families Facebook group.
When there isn’t much structure at home, children feel overwhelmed and tense. Their behavior will indicate that everything feels out of control. When authority figures impose their will and rigid rules on a child, the child’s behavior becomes defensive and rebellious. In contrast, with empathetic limit setting, routines and rituals, a child feels safe, and their brain is able to integrate. Life has a flow. They are both energetic and at ease; able to handle whatever challenges comes their way.
“We really value these sessions,” said one couple, “and it’s so beautiful to know other local families are collectively joining together to raise amazing human beings.”
The next Mountain Strong Families session on May 6 will address how to problem-solve and work through conflicts when relationships have been harmed. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
(Originally published in the April 15, 2021, edition of The Mountain-Ear.)