How to Talk About Tragedy with A 5 Year Old
What happened in Paris last night is shocking. It is terrifying from the standpoint of living in any major city and thinking about whether it’s possible this could happen in your city on an average Friday night out. Could that have been me at that restaurant?
I grew up in DC in the ’80s. Yeah, there was definitely a sense among us then that there could be a nuclear bomb that took us all out at any time. After 16 days of rain in Atlanta when Morrissey came on the Sirius this morning crooning about the bomb bringing us together . . . I kind of wished for it. But also, thought how weird it was for us, back then, to all literally have dreams about mushroom clouds and how things would go down when the Soviets attacked. I mean, obviously, we were at the epicenter of any bomb dropping that might occur, so that was pretty much definitely how we all were going to die.
I haven’t checked the stats lately, but I believe the danger of actually dying from a nuclear bomb is probably about a million percent less likely than dying at the hands of a redneck with a vendetta and a semi-automatic he picked up at the gunshow without a background check. We now live in a world where people seem to just shoot shit up indiscriminately. Walking into a shopping mall and worrying you might get killed was literally not a thing in the 80s. Like omigod Heather, that so totally would have killed mall culture. Nuclear bomb? Yes. Random mall shooting. NO. What. The. Fuck?
I’m a horrible news junkie and would be perfectly content to let the constant reports about Paris or Umpqua or Lafayette or Charleston or . . . Play in the background for hours straight. But with a 5 year old in the house, that’s no longer an option. The “what happened mommy? Why are all those police cars there?” sets up a really challenging dilemma: I have to tell her that there are bad people in the world who do bad things, but in a way that she can understand and also that doesn’t scare the living shit out of her.
Last weekend, out of the blue, she started asking about 9-11. She had talked about it with her babysitter that day, so I asked her to explain to me what happened. She got the basics right, but didn’t understand why those bad guys would want to hurt those people. I found myself trying to talk to her about it in a way that wouldn’t make her never want to get on a plane again. It was really uncomfortable for many reasons, but mostly because when you describe such terrible events in such a simplistic way to make it make sense to a 5 year old, it becomes clear that none of it — not any of those incidents and all the too many others like them — makes any sense.
So, at any rate, I kept the news off last night until after she had gone to bed. She loved Paris so much and I knew the news would upset her. But I know that I can’t shelter her from everything forever. At some point, the news, bad people, a broken heart, bad fashion and all the other things that don’t make sense in life will happen. And we’ll have to talk about it. I found this great article at PBS Parents that gives some tips on how to help kids get through tragic and scary events like last night’s. I’d urge anyone with kids to take a read. I think there’s even some good advice in there for adults (I’m lookin’ at you #1!):
Take a news break.
Answer kids’ questions – without giving them unnecessary details.
Maintain a regular schedule.
Model confidence and assurance.
Find solace or take action.
I’d love to live in a world where I don’t need these kinds of skills on a regular basis. But I’m glad someone smarter than I am is out there giving tips for when I do. Check it out and give your loved ones a big hug.