Dr. Evelyn Bilias Lolis
On Talking to Children (Again)
I humbly acknowledge that I am but one voice in a sea of voices. The opinions expressed here are my own.
There are some posts that are too painful to write because they involve cutting deeply through the many layers of complexity that surround a matter and looking earnestly at our failings as a society. This is one of them.
The shooting of innocent children and teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas yesterday has left us once again dumbfounded as a society and traumatized as parents. This goes against the grain of everything that we hold true about sending our children to school: we usher them to the bus or to the drop off line with the ease and trust of those who are waiting on the other end; we welcome them back at the end of day with open arms and smiles. Rinse and repeat.
Yesterday’s incident is NOT about mental health, friends. Yes, clearly, this young man was troubled and any quick survey of the news, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) will yield you the uptick in statistics about the silent pandemic brewing alongside COVID-19—the social and health crisis that is mental health. The mental health pandemic is undeniable. However, it is a separate matter. This here is NOT only about that. This is about POLICY. This is about the cracks that we elect to maintain in our country’s operations that incessantly fail our systems and children. Some of these policies fail them academically and those are most often the focus of conversations, debates, and news. But guess what? Some of these cracks also cost them their lives. And here we are again.
What happens during trauma? Well, to put it simply, trauma disorganizes us as individuals. Traumatic events cause our brains, schemas, and knowings to suspend their automaticity and process something that directly conflicts with held beliefs and daily life operations. Trauma disorganizes. What we are feeling this morning as parents, educators, professionals, and citizens of this country is exactly that—disorganization. It manifests in anxiety, anger, sadness, despondency, and any other emotion we are grappling to understand this morning. We are all trying to “reorganize”. We are all trying to reorganize so that we can parent, teach, work, and do whatever it is that the day calls upon us. Please read this paragraph again and let it simmer; this is important context.
Safety, both physical and psychological, is a fundamental human need that rests shoulder to shoulder with the air that we breathe and the food that nourishes our bodies. It is a lower level, fundamental self-preservation need. We all know what it feels like to have this basic need tampered with—we’ve had a collective 2+ years practice in this arena. So much of what we do, how we perform, how we cope, love, perform, and strive stems from the perception and base of safety. For most of us, this need is on autopilot as we navigate the demands of the day.
Cue yesterday’s catastrophe. Our resolve has already been tried for 2+ years. Parents and educators have already struggled to explain and demystify COVID-19, war, a fraught economy, and burdening mental health crisis among the typical learnings of the developmental period. Now we have to explain and “have the talk” about this shooting that took place on an elementary school campus and claimed the lives of helpless, innocent young children and their teachers. This talk. Another complicated and painful talk added to what seems the pile of complicated and painful talks we have had to have while parenting our children these past two years. Another talk that wrenches our hearts, makes our stomachs turn, and disillusions our spirits.
What do we tell our children? What can we tell them that is realistic on one hand and leveling on another? Recall that our individual sense of safety is the basis for most of our activities and this is especially the case for young children. Their psychological safety is what we need to thoughtfully protect as we inform them of the limits of our society and world.
1. Ensure and reinforce their safety. This incident is tragic and yes these episodes of violence are becoming less incidental, but they are not normative occurrences. Children need to understand that these occurrences are not common, that in the larger pan of school days, school systems, children, and teachers, these happenings are not typical. We need to teach them how to come together to observe, pray, and show compassion for and suffer with the victims and their families while understanding that from a statistical standpoint these occurrences happen in small (yet horrific) fractions.
2. Normalize their feelings. Encourage them to express themselves and the continuum of feelings (even contradictory feelings) that they may have on the matter. Provide them a space and safe harbor for recognizing and holding their feelings. The feelings themselves cannot be wrong; they are as involuntary as our blinking. There should never be shame in expressing feelings. It is through identifying and becoming aware of their feelings that children can be supported and guided to a proper coping place.
3. Acknowledge the complexity in the issue and that you don’t have all the answers. Acknowledge up front that these matters are complex and that there are parties working to detangle and attend to the many facets of this matter in all corners of society. Acknowledge your own confusion, disdain, and heartfelt struggle as an adult and then validate theirs as children.
4. Observe their behavior. Be watchful of changes in their daily behavior routines and baselines. Take note. Sometimes even subtle changes can indicate struggle or confusion.
5. Encourage connection. Connection is a powerful protective factor. Safety is also lodged in connection, especially at school. Encourage your child to talk to their teacher, school psychologist, social worker, counselor, or where applicable their administrator. Intimacy in connection gets magnified in times of vulnerability.
6. For older children, encourage advocacy. Helplessness is a time of crisis is a frustrating place to sit. Many individual find strength and hope through doing. For older children, have appropriate conversations about legislature and advocacy actions within their realm and purview. Empower them to be leaders, voices, and stakeholders.
7. Ask for Help. Should you have any question about your child’s wellbeing, regardless of how minor you may think it to be, ask a professional.
8. Enlist Parent Support. I cannot attest to this highly enough. If you do not already have a parenting support circle (or crew), form one. Social support is a time-tested, highly effective protective factor for dealing with stress, crisis, and trauma. Reach out to your circle now. Check in. More importantly, invite someone you think may benefit at this time from your support circle.
My heart goes out to all families who have been affected by this senseless tragedy. I emit love, strength, and support unto our communal tribe—the one we share as parents, as educators, and as members of a society that needs to do far better at addressing the true nucleus of the matter—our failing policies.
For more information on how to talk to children about violence please refer to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) evidenced-based resources and suggestions: