The last week has brought significant change for America, with no slowing down over the weekend. The fast pace of this change has left many parents feeling at a loss for how to explain it to their children, and how to function in their daily lives. We spoke with Lee Chaix McDonough, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and mother of two to get some much-needed advice.
First I have to ask you the question that I haven’t been able to get anyone to answer this week: How do you talk to your kids about the last 10 days?
Ooooh boy. That’s the million-dollar question. This is really going to depend on your child, their age and your relationship with them. It’s best to wait until they come to you with a question, because forcing the topic can really backfire. You also want to use age-appropriate language.
My children are old enough (10 and 8 years old) that they are starting to think critically for themselves, and they’re also much more aware of the world than younger children (they’re also much more aware when I’m avoiding a topic with them too). Here’s what I do when my kids ask me a question about something in the news. I start by asking them what they’ve heard so I know what I’m working with. Then I reaffirm our family’s core values – honesty, love, helping others, etc. I then separate fact from rumor or misunderstanding. With regard to the facts, I try not to think for my kids, because I want them to be critical thinkers. I ask them to determine whether they think what we’ve just discussed is in line with our family’s values. Also, I do my best to separate the person from the behavior. We don’t talk about people being good or bad. We discuss people’s actions as either being consistent or inconsistent with our values.
I’m also fully transparent with them, and I acknowledge when I’m uncertain or confused. There are also times when I tell my kids that a certain issue is for adults and that it’s so complicated, even adults disagree on it. This shouldn’t be used to dismiss all of their questions, but maybe some topics that they might not be ready to approach yet (depending on your child’s age this may include things like abortion, war and capital punishment.)
So, that’s my two cents. Don’t talk about people, talk about behaviors. Root your discussions in your family’s values, and allow your children to lead the discussion by linking behaviors to values. Step in and clarify as needed, and don’t be afraid to set limits on topics that you aren’t ready to discuss with your kids.
The common thread we’re seeing is fear from parents. Some of the fear is from visible minorities (or whose partners and children are) fear for their immediate physical, emotional and economic safety. The other type is from friends that are white or otherwise not in a group affected by the proposed wall or travel ban who have free-floating fear and anxiety. How can parents frame those fears?
It helps sometimes to remind parents of the purpose of fear – to keep us safe. I’d encourage parents to acknowledge their fear and, as objectively as possible, analyze the extent to which it is an immediate, direct threat. There are people for whom this fear is immediate, perhaps based on how they look or sound, what they wear, where they are from, etc. In this case, their fear is helping them, and they should honor it by seeking out support and taking measures to promote their safety. Reach out to friends, family and allies within their community. Something as simple as knowing that someone is just a text away, or that someone will accompany them in public if they’re fearful can help, even if they don’t need to use it.
For those of us for whom this fear is more abstract, there are a few steps to take. First, remind yourself that your mind is creating this fear because your mind thinks it’s helping. A lot of times, we create “worst case scenarios” in our minds, and our body responds as if those situations are true. Our mind is trying to prepare us for the worst – if we pre-experience a negative event, we’ll be more prepared if/when it happens. While our mind may think that it’s keeping us safe by preparing us, it actually has the opposite effect and creates things like anxiety and depression, which can cause us to make really bad decisions.
If this sounds familiar, a mindfulness technique called “Thanking Your Mind” may help. When you feel fear or anxiety, acknowledge it and decide whether it’s necessary, helpful, or appropriate in the moment. If not, take a moment to “thank your mind” for trying to keep you safe, and release it from that obligation. Then refocus your attention on something that connects you to your values, or what’s important to you. Perhaps that’s engaging in your work, or spending time with your partner or children, or enjoying a hobby. Don’t try to avoid or push away the fear or anxiety – acknowledge it first, thank your mind, and then move on. This can be a great self-help technique for people who experience occasional anxiety. However, if your anxiety is getting worse over time, or if you are experiencing impairment in more than one area of your life (work, family, school, social situations, etc.), then it may be a good time to seek care from a mental health professional.
Something we’re hearing from people is that they “can’t look away”. They’re checking social media more than they want, having a hard time focusing on their kids, jobs and report feeling angry and agitated all the time. How can parents focus on life when they feel they can’t unplug?
What a terrific question. This is something that I’ve struggled with as well, and it’s been a little hard for me to follow my own advice. These events are so important, but also so much larger than each of us, that it can make it really hard to focus on our daily lives. The constant pull to check your Twitter or Facebook feeds, always wondering how many likes or RTs your last post got are all signs that your use of social media isn’t helpful, but is creating a larger problem.
I think mindful use of social media is a good strategy. That involves setting boundaries and time limits, engaging for a simple positive purpose. This can be hard because our phones are always with us and each buzz reminds us that something is going on. This constant exposure and re-exposure keeps us angry and makes us feel as if we can’t find a reprieve from the news.
You may need to put your phone away in a cupboard, turn off your notifications or maybe enlisting your partner to keep each other accountable for your agreed upon limits.
The other part of this is making sure you have something in the real world to divert your focus. Make a to-do list, get out of the house, make a playdate for the kids, grab coffee with a friend do something in real life to keep your mind away from your phone and social media.
This is all easier said than done!
If after being more mindful about your social media exposure you still find yourself regularly agitated and angry, you may want to consider seeking help from a mental health professional.
It really is, and I haven’t been very good at it either! I think what makes this so hard is that people get engaged in conversations online and then they feel like they can’t walk away. Especially when the conversation is heated.
When we go through stressful events, we want – and need- to foster connection. It helps us feel less alone and more alive. Think about it, when you’re upset about something, one of the first things many of us do is find someone to talk to. I, too, have felt compelled to stay connected for the last 10 days, not so much due to FOMO but out of a need to feel connected to others. And in some ways, social media can be wonderfully helpful with that. But the shadow side is that we’re often re-exposed to the original stressors, and so it creates a vicious cycle.
What isn’t helpful is engaging in unproductive flame wars with strangers (or family). It can be really hard to recognize when you’ve crossed the line from civil disagreement to something that’s unproductive and perhaps permanently damaging long-term relationships. If you feel like you need to immediately respond to the person when your phone buzzes, that may be a good sign that the conversation has turned from a civil exchange of ideas to something that’s less productive.
I think part of this is that these events feel so much larger than us – and let’s face it, as individuals we have very little control over them – so posting on social media means that we’re actually doing something about it.
You’re right, and I think that’s why many of us have had a hard time unplugging, because it /feels/ like we’re doing something by staying engaged. I have a hard time answering this question because I’m struggling with it myself. While the conversations that we have with each other on social media are important, they’re sort of low hanging fruit in terms of doing something. You may or may not change someone’s mind on social media, but what we really need to do if we feel strongly about something is take real-world action.
That real-world action can take many forms, and it doesn’t have to be large, it can be small steps at the local level. The easiest step is to call or write to your elected representatives. That will do more good than arguing with someone online. Volunteer with or donate to an organization that supports the cause you believe in. If you can’t do either of these things, you can do simple things like donate food or clothing within your community. While it may not directly affect the cause you believe in, it will help foster and build positive change in your community.