This morning, the Otter Pass team woke up to the news that the Austin Bomber that had been terrorizing our city killed himself in a police stand-off. For co-founders Jonathan and Jessica, the news hit close to home: the bomber was apparently operating just two miles away from where they live with their three daughters. In this article, Jessica explores how they are learning to talk to their kids about hard things when tragedy strikes, especially when it feels so personal.
Our girls are all in elementary school still; we have three short months left until our oldest finishes fifth grade. She is a highly aware kid and always has been. We learned early with her that we had to address what was happening in the world because she would hear about it from her friends at school anyway—protecting our kids by keeping quiet has never been an option for us.
Our conversations rely on one underlying premise: We cannot guarantee our kids’ safety, whether from an extreme tragedy or just driving down the street. It’s so tempting to tell our kids, “Don’t worry! Nothing bad will is ever going to happen to you!” But we all know that’s not true and, the older kids get, the more they wise up to that reality. Giving kids false promises does not help their fear because it makes them doubt us or themselves.
Instead, we try to help our kids learn how to navigate a world that is usually pretty safe but can sometimes feel very scary for them (and for us!). It’s not to say we’re doing this perfectly—in fact, we’ve learned many of these lessons because we did it all wrong. But here are five tips we’ve developed over time to our three girls about tragedies, whether school shootings, the war in Syria, or the bombings here in Austin, in age-appropriate ways.
1. Use simple language that connects with them and let their questions guide what you tell them. Even with our older daughters, we use simple sentences to explain situations and immediately tell them what is happening to make it OK. For this recent situation, we said, “There has been a bomber in Austin recently; the police and FBI are actively seeking him out and they’re very good at what they do. We don’t need to be afraid, but we wanted you to know in case someone at school brings it up. If you have any questions, feel free to ask us.” Our oldest daughter wanted to know whether anyone was hurt and, away from her younger sisters, we told her—two people had been killed and three injured. We have always answered her questions honestly and because of that, she trusts us.
2. Give them strategies they can use to be aware without being paranoid. This one has been hard for us in the past—in trying to equip our kids, we’ve sometimes gone too far and made them overly anxious. This time we told them to let us know if there were any packages on the front porch. That was it—other than that, they didn’t need to worry because we were watching out for everything. When we got a delivery of some fishing poles unexpectedly from a good friend yesterday, my youngest daughter alerted me and watched me text my friend to make sure the package was from her. Once we got confirmation, I let her take a picture with the package to tell our friends we got it. I praised her highly for doing what I asked and letting me know there was a weird package on the porch!
3. Be calm yourself. I’ll be honest, this is the one I struggle with the most. I tend to be a little overdramatic (Jonathan would DEFINITELY agree to this!). I’ve had to watch my tone over the years because my overly-sensitive kids are aware of every. little. undertone. But what I found fascinating is that, by making sure I was calming my voice, I actually calmed myself—I truly don’t want my kids to be afraid of the world and teaching them how to face situations like this without hysteria has been good for them and for me.
4. Limit their exposure to these stories. Our girls aren’t on social media at all. We’re still figuring out what we plan to do for middle school, but for now, they don’t have phones or access to Facebook or Instagram. We have no regrets about that for this age; we’ve been grateful that we could be the primary source for this information while they’re still young and learning how the world works. We have other friends whose kids do have phones that they monitor closely and they work together to make sure that the kids are processing the information they learn. (I’ll be honest, this is one we’re constantly working on—I’d love to hear from you in the comments, on Facebook, or Instagram about how other parents handle talking to kids about news items that affect their lives.)
5. We are teaching them to handle situations to the best of their ability. This is one of the ones that has really resonated for our girls. Years ago, I stumbled across a phrase that has become one of our family mantras: “You have everything inside of yourself that you need to handle that situation.” Whether it’s tests or school lockdown drills, our oldest daughter says that all the time to herself. Showing my kids that they have some control in a situation that scares them has been really helpful. Again, we’re not giving them false promises, but we are helping them develop strategies that make them feel like they have agency. For example, the incident with the unexpected package of fishing poles from our friends gave us a chance to work together to mitigate what could have been a scary situation. I narrated while I texted my friend: “First, let’s find out if these are actually the fishing poles Mark and Ali sent us! Let me text Ali and confirm and then we’ll tell her; she’ll love to see that we got them!” Later we processed how we all responded and picked out good things we did—alerting me, texting my friend, staying calm. We diffused the fear by using our words. Giving our girls some sense of control has helped them feel equipped to handle whatever comes up.