By Miriam Insel, LGSW
Sunday was a great day. 80 and sunny, Baltimore was humming with the normal flow of traffic as people casually headed out to work, school and play. The whirlwind from last week’s violence has finally started to die down, the curfew has been lifted and the National Guard has begun to unwind their operation.
Last week, Joe Honsberger, LCSW-C, wrote an excellent piece on dealing with the riots as they were happening: Talk about what is happening, turn off the media, support each other and know it is temporary. Now that the initial crisis is over, it is time for the next step: reflect and turn the experience into a positive, teachable moment.
One of the ways to instill hope in our children is to give them control over situations. When something “bad” happens, what can we take from it? What can we learn from a painful experience? How can we bring “good” back into the world after our sense of peace crumbles? Children are hungry for control. They want to know that they can depend on their parents and eventually themselves when lost. During a crisis, we are dealing with the moment and do not have time for deep introspection. Now, at the other end, we have time to reflect and teach our children to take back control.
First, it’s important to review what’s happened to make sure everyone is on the same page. Share with your kids that peaceful demonstrations are okay. Remind them it is one of the principles our country was founded on. There are productive ways to express your opinion without hurting others. Be sure to teach your children to have empathy for all points of view, within reason.
Below are some ideas of topics to discuss with your children at various ages and stages.
At this age, children are first learning about relationships. Have a quick conversation with your child about the violence, “people were fighting and other people got hurt.” Discuss why they are fighting. Maybe they didn’t agree with each other and instead of using their words to try to solve the problem they got very upset and mad and broke things and people got hurt. Then talk about making people happy. Children love to make others smile. Bring extra snacks to the park and have your preschooler hand them out to the other children. When reading books, notice sad, angry faces and ask your preschooler why the character feels that way. Then talk about ways to help the character feel better. Preschoolers are sponges, the more we teach them about caring for others, the more compassionate people they will be.
Kids in elementary school tend to be very affected by what their friends think. In “mob or crowd psychology” the idea is that an individual will let go of his/her own belief system and attach himself to the crowd. A second grader loves his new green backpack, until he goes to school. Suddenly, he insists on only wearing a red one. Why? Because the crowd is doing something else and he wants to belong. While a backpack may not be a big deal, when the crowd is rioting, following others can turn you into an arsonist. Take this opportunity to talk to your child about “following the crowd.” If all of your friends decided to skip class, would you follow? Why or why not? Start a daily exercise during dinner time or bedtime. Ask your child to recount a time that day that she wanted to follow others but did not. Or a time she did follow others and how she feels about her choice after the fact. Do not judge, just listen and ask questions. The key to raising an individual who thinks for himself is by allowing your child to think for himself, even when you disagree. Help your child develop an inner voice that is strong and confident. And make it a value to think for oneself.
Peer pressure is even more of an issue for kids in middle school. It can be the most impressionable time of all for kids who just want to fit in with their friends. And thanks to modern technology, these days being true to yourself is even harder for teens. Parents must be tuned in to the impact that the rush and immediacy of social media has on our children. Talk to your middle schooler about the role social media played in the panic of last week. How many rumors were started about rioting in places that never even happened? What is real and what is exaggerated? It used to be you talked to one person or a few at a time. Now messages are sent simultaneously to thousands. Rumors are spread faster than the speed of light. Talk your child about the impact of social media, when to limit it, and how to use it responsibly. The bad stuff spreads easily, so why not concentrate on spreading sunshine and hope?
Mondawmin Mall was vandalized after the nearby high school was let out. What a great opportunity to talk your teen about the tremendous impact an individual can have on society. Throughout world history, teenagers have been at the forefront of social change. Young and idealistic with endless amounts of energy, they have joined causes and fought for freedoms. Ask your teen how she can bring good into the world. Talk about a social cause he is concerned about and what can be done to help. Give your teen the power to do good by opening a discussion and supporting their ideas.
And as for the rest of us adults, remember that there will always be differing opinions and perspectives. It’s up to us to embrace this fact and still find a way to make an impact. A central value in Judaism is Tikun Olam– an obligation to recognize injustice and suffering and do what we can to bring healing to the world. In the wake of one of the darker times in our city’s history, let’s each bring forth our unique goodness to create a better, brighter world.
By Miriam Insel, LGSW, JCS PRP Coordinator/Therapist
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