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Daniel B. Peters, Ph.D. Headshot

What Do I Tell My Children? Parenting in Scary and Unthinkable Times

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"What do I tell my children?" was the question I was asked by the host on a recent radio show about the horrific Santa Barbara shootings and murders. This was after he played the statement of one of the victim's fathers talking through unthinkable grief, trying to make sense of a loss that will never go away and asking all of us "when will this (killing) stop?!"

My heart was pounding. I could feel the pain in the father's voice -- it was palpable. I was processing his words and the question of the radio host not as a mental health professional, but as a father. I breathed deeply, put my professional hat on and tried to do my job of providing parents with some answers; answers about how to talk to their children about a topic that we don't ever want to have to discuss -- that innocent people die for no reason, at any time, anywhere. I heard the father's voice in my head as he yelled and cried, "You don't think it will happen to you..."

We left for the mountains Friday afternoon, so our kids were mostly away from media and the news. The adults quietly talked about this tragedy. We all tried to focus on other things, but inevitably, during the quiet moments, we talked about it. We all stopped talking when kids walked by. There were eight children ages 10-17. Did they need to know about this? No, they didn't. There is bad stuff happening all the time. How will it help them to know that they could be randomly killed at any time, anywhere?

The radio host asked me if I needed to add to or change my strategies for helping people, particularly children, deal with anxiety. He asked if this event, and events like this, called for something different. My initial response was no, that the same strategies about understanding how our brain and body -- our fight or flight response -- works, how our thoughts determine our emotions and that engaging in anti-worry and fear behaviors is proven to be effective in overcoming worry and fear. This is all true. However, I realize that I have not stopped thinking about the shootings and the implications for our current world. This fact, that people can get killed, anytime, anywhere, makes me think about another key factor in dealing with anxiety -- accept reality.

Acceptance is the cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy and mindfulness. It is based on being present in any given moment and realizing, and accepting, that the present is all we have, and the goal is to be fully in it. What else do we have? A future that may or may not exist? A retirement that may or may not happen? A time in the future when we are not stressed and can focus on what is really important to us? We may get this, our kids may get this. At almost 44 years of age, I think I am finally getting it -- there are no guarantees.

My wife texted my on Monday that there had been a shooting a few miles from our house on Sunday night. We don't have shootings where we live. Now we do. A couple was returning from a concert, stopped at a stoplight, and both were shot. I felt numb. It is as though a message was being delivered again -- that anyone can get shot or killed anytime, anywhere. Again, without speaking about it, my wife and I had the same plan -- don't tell the kids. How will it help them to know they can get shot where we live?

My brother-in-law came over Monday night. We went outside to talk. My 12-year-old son came outside and asked, "What are you talking about?" I made something up and then he said, "You said, "Which one? Was there another shooting?" So even when we try to keep reality from our children, it is very difficult. I decided to be straight with him. He said he knew about the college shootings. I said a couple was shot coming home from a concert on the other side of our town. He said, "Oh," and didn't ask any more questions. Is he used to this kind of information? Is he scared and doesn't want to talk about it? Is he in denial that this could happen to any of us? I hope so.

Research has shown that people who are realists tend to be more depressed than naïve optimists. Maybe it is good to have some degree of denial and optimism about the future. Should we live fully in reality -- that you can get shot, anytime, anywhere? As I write and continue to process our new world (the same world that produced Columbine, Newtown and many others), I am coming out on the side of accepting reality -- really bad things can happen anytime, while trying not to dwell on it.

What do we tell our kids? First, try NOT to tell your kids. Try to shelter them from awful news and events. I assure you that you will not be sheltering them. They will learn about bad things -- they can't be avoided these days. Next, if and when they find out, give them as limited information as they will accept. They will ask you more questions if they want to know more. Finally, help your children to fully embrace life in the present. Without scaring them about the fragility of life, focus on living life in the present and to the fullest.

What do we tell ourselves? That it CAN happen to us. That the victims are no different than we are. We must face reality, but not get lost in the fear and pain. Live each day fully. Love fully.

The present moment is all we can count on.