when bad things happen

IMG_4072Our kids are back at school after a vacation week that began with the Boston Marathon bombing and ended with a day spent in lockdown. We live in Watertown about 4 blocks away from where the 2nd suspect was apprehended, close enough to see and hear a lot of the police action that day, but far enough that I didn’t truly fear for our physical safety. Nonetheless, the incessant helicopter noise, the flashing lights of the blockades, and the police in full military body armor checking the houses up and down our street created mounting tension throughout the day.

There’s a lot of wisdom about how we as parents make our kids feel safe during such times: focusing on the helpers, maintaining routines, staying close, cuddling more. I feel like most people I know are doing a pretty good job in those respects. But what happens when children ask “why?” Why would someone do that?

The truth is that we don’t really know. “They were bad guys” doesn’t cut it for me. I don’t feel like that truly helps kids understand the complexity of human behavior and choices, nor does it make them feel safer. Can a bad guy be captain of the wrestling team? Can a bad guy go to prom with his friends? Can a good guy do bad things?

On the first morning back at our Watertown school, psychologist Larry Cohen was on-site talking with parents. In addition to giving people a forum for sharing stories and connecting in community with one another, he punctuated the discussion with great advice about helping kids work through confusing and traumatic experiences. One idea he talked about that I love is how a parent can respond when a child asks “why?” and we don’t have a good answer. What can we do when we don’t know?

We can empathize.

When kids ask “why?” they’re trying to make sense of something that is unsettling and confusing, something that makes them feel frightened or unsure. If it’s impossible to offer a real reason why, we are ALWAYS able to validate their feelings, to say “it’s really confusing to think someone would want to hurt people.” Validating a child’s feelings will help them to be less confused or frightened. It gives them the message that they are not alone, that their feelings are understood, and that their confusion is not unreasonable.

This approach has never failed to work in a positive way for me. While some might wonder if a child will feel less secure when an adult admits not knowing something, I’ve found the truth in an honest and genuine response – one that allows a different kind of connection – to be a very powerful thing. –t

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