By Pamela Stephen, LCPC
It’s been three weeks, but the shouts of “Jews will not replace us” still echo in many minds. It’s been three weeks but the images of marchers brandishing torches and carrying symbols of hate are still clearly imprinted in our mind. It’s been three weeks since people from across the country were stunned by the display of hatred from White Supremacy groups in Charlottesville, Virginia but the memories haven’t faded.
The nation watched as the acts of terror demonstrated by self-proclaimed Nazis and other racists quickly permeated the news and social media. The images of violence that erupted in the historic southern town over the removal of a statue glorifying the confederacy have left many feeling afraid, devastated, and confused. Many have asked themselves, “How could something so horrific occur in 2017?” If the events that took place are difficult for adults to wrap their heads around, know that our children share the same thoughts and feelings, often to an even greater extent.
Whether it is apparent or not, our children are paying attention to the events going on in the community. Children are seeing the same messages of anti-Semitism that adults see and may not yet have the tools to understand this hatred. It is important for parents to be aware of what their children may be hearing from the news or social media and be ready to have open, honest conversations with them about what is going on.
Children will often leave us signs that they need to talk about things that are bothering them. A pre-school aged child may want to cuddle more with his parent. Your elementary aged child may want reassurance she is safe. Middle or high school aged children may be more vocal in their opinions about the world.
While it is crucial to talk to your children about these issues, parents need to be prepared. First, seek support and educate yourself on the topic of hate so you can feel ready and empowered to talk with your children. Then, decide how much information is appropriate to share based on the child’s age and maturity level.
The following are suggestions to help parents decide what to share with their child based on their developmental level:
Preschool (aged 2-5)
- Let them know there are good and bad people in the world and you will always be there to keep them safe.
Elementary school (aged 6 to 12)
- Talk about how there are cultural differences among people that are generally respected by most people.
- Explain there are groups of people who choose to use negativity and violence to show their disapproval of certain cultures and this is not ok.
Middle and High school (aged 13 to 18)
- Invite your child to watch or read the news with you and ask them to share their thoughts and feelings.
- Let them know they can come to you with any questions or concerns when they feel ready to talk.
Having conversations about hate can be difficult for everyone. Remember to follow your child’s lead and pace. Listen to your child as they talk and ask questions. If you’re not sure of how to answer, it is ok to say you don’t know how to answer them and that you are still learning. Be willing to keep the lines of communication open and revisit the discussion when appropriate.
It is possible for troubling events to trigger stress reactions in children who have experienced trauma in the past. Children respond to stressful events differently than adults. Parents should keep a watchful eye for changes in their child’s behavior. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), here are some signs to look for:
Preschool aged children: Fearful of being separated from parent, crying, changes in sleep and eating patterns
Elementary school aged children: Anxious or worried feelings about safety, trouble sleeping, becoming easily upset
Middle and high-school aged children: Sad mood and withdrawn, engaging in risk-taking behaviors
If a child is showing signs of stress that are difficult to manage, parents should seek help from a licensed mental health professional.
Be sure to point out to your kids that while the actions of hate groups uncovered the ugliness of the past, it also inspired movements of love, peace and unity across the country. It is important to keep in mind that communities are strengthened by the values of their people. Although difficult, parents who have healthy conversations with their children about hate in the world can instill values that will bring change.
Pamela Stephen is a therapist for JCS.
Because children don’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.