Hard times, hard conversations
As parents, it can be hard to know how to talk about tragedies in our world with our children. The horrific shooting of 49 primarily Latinx young LGBTQ people at a LGBTQ club in Orlando is the latest in an ongoing stream of mass shootings in the United States. This was a targeted effort to kill LGBTQ people that is a painful reminder of the persistence of homophobia, alongside gun violence, in the United States. While children in many of our families – and we as parents - endure micro-aggressions of racism, homophobia and heterosexism, able-ism, size-ism, classism, sexism, and xenophobia in our everyday lives, the stark and violent realities of these forms of oppression also manifest in these tragic events as well.
The decision to talk with our children about a tragic event is a personal and family decision. There are many factors to consider, including age/developmental appropriateness; level of media exposure in the child’s life; family and community context; and situational factors, to name a few. This discussion acknowledges that particularly impacted communities may find that talking about tragedies affecting our communities feels too close to home, and is not something that people wish to burden our children with, in addition to daily challenges and experiences of discrimination. These are all valid responses and only you will know what is best for your family.
A Family Decision
We chose to tell our two children (10 and 6 years old) about what happened in Orlando before they heard about it from other sources, so that we could frame the conversation around key points with intention, avoid their hearing any inaccurate or reactionary information from mainstream media or unreliable sources, and be a resource for any questions they had as they integrated this news. Additionally, as a LGBTQ family, we knew that we would be surrounded by members of our LGBTQ community where the topic was likely to arise (Pride Parade, friends raising the topic in conversation), and also wanted to draw on our community as a resource and form of engagement through which our children could feel support (vigils, sense of community etc.).
Tips for Talking
If you do decide to talk with your child, or your child comes to you letting you know they heard about the shooting in Orlando, here are some points to consider. Again, this is a personal discussion, and it is imperative that you consider your own personal family context in both making the decision about whether to talk with your children, and in how you do so - drawing on your family culture/s, values, philosophies, religion/spirituality, experiences/discussions of forms of oppression, and other important resources that can support and contextualize the messages you convey. The tips below are offered in this spirit, and with the knowledge that your family context will be of utmost importance, and will provide the key components for making the news something that your child can hold with them and integrate into their lives with resilience.
1. Pick a good time and place for the conversation, where your child feels safe and where you are focused and present. Many people find that talking with their children on walks, while driving, or at home is most conducive to hard conversations. You know your child and yourself, so make sure it works for you (if you are raising the conversation; often we may be hearing from our children themselves). While some children like to have heart to hearts at bedtime, and that may be their time to open up, it is likely not the best time to raise such a topic unless they bring it up first.
2. Keep in mind that brief, manageable conversations are best, and set an environment in which you pay close attention to your child’s responses, and respond with physical, verbal or emotional responses to their spoken and unspoken responses. Being physically close, giving them hugs – it’s important to know what usually works for your child and to be in tune with them throughout. Turn off your cell phone and any other distractions.
3. Use clear, simple language that is age appropriate for your child ( see links on talking about tragedy with children below).
4. Be direct. Sometimes we want to use euphemisms or to make things sound better than they are. Just be direct. Say that people died, they did not pass away, etc., and avoid confusing and unclear/stigmatizing language such as describing the killer as a “crazy person.” While we may be angry and upset, inflammatory language will only undermine the message.
5. Name the emotions that you have. Frame the conversation by acknowledging the sadness, loss and grief involved.
6. Some children may feel scared when their parent/s cry in front of them. Parents are problem solvers, so if we are upset, who will solve the problems? Acknowledge that it can be hard to see parents, caregivers or teachers cry, but that it is healthy to feel and express our emotions.
7. Define terms that you are using that your child may or may not be familiar with. Homophobia is defined as the fear or hatred of people who are LGBTQ.
8. Guns can be a big topic in children’s play. Decide if and how you wish to address the gun violence. We let our children know that gun violence is real, and that is why we do not support forms of gun play, but this will again be something that is situational in your own family.
9. If you are not in an LGBTQ parented family, talk about people in your child’s life who are LGBTQ and discuss examples of love and community support for LGBTQ people and communities your child may have witnessed or been a part of. Making it relevant to them will emphasize the point that most people are not homophobic, that the LGBTQ community is vibrant, healthy and mostly accepted, and will allow them to understand the overall picture of LGBTQ issues, rather than victimhood as the only dimension of LGBTQ experience you discuss with them. Show them pictures of vigils and marches around the world. These are powerful visuals that demonstrate the outpouring and context of support.
10. If you are not in an LGBTQ parented family, talk about how to be an ally and/or friend to LGBTQ people (and make it happen). Draw on other examples in your child’s life in which the concept of ally and/or friend may be relevant.
11. If you don’t know anyone who is LGBTQ, consider that now is a good opportunity to figure out how to broaden your community networks to diversity the community in which your child is living. This in itself will go a long way.
12. If you are in an LGBTQ family, you can raise the many examples of community support for LGBTQ people and families that your child will likely have experienced. Draw on recent examples of times where your child may have experienced the power of community inclusion and acceptance personally.
13. Ask your child throughout if they have questions. Never make assumptions about what they know or don’t know, or how they may be feeling. Tell them the facts; ask them about their response.
14. Draw on ongoing conversations in your family about racism and other forms of oppression, and talk about historical ways that people from diverse groups have fought to eliminate racism.
15. Include critical media engagement in your discussion. Address the fact that the media and stories our children may hear about this incident can be racist, and the fact that the killer was Muslim means that people are using this as an excuse for turning against all people in the Muslim community. Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to engage critically with media (and if not, use this as a way into developing critical engagement).
16. Allow plenty of time for your child to raise questions, or to tell you directly or indirectly when they are finished talking about this. They may start talking about other things, and then link it to the topic. Give them space for their own reaction, or to move on.
17. Answer their questions directly. If you don’t know, tell them you will find out.
18. There is no such thing, in any topic area, as “the talk.” Let your children know that you are available to answer any other questions that come up, and you will check in with them again at another time. Acknowledge that they may feel sad.
19. Reinforce throughout the conversation, and certainly at the end, that they are safe and that you will continue to ensure this in your role as their parent. It’s your job! For children in LGBTQ families, this point of safety may hit close to home. If other people are getting killed for being LGBTQ, that is particularly scary. Draw on specific resources around you that reinforce this message of safety, acceptance and inclusion.
20. Perhaps most importantly, show your child through your actions that you are committed to doing whatever you can, even in any seemingly small way, to promote inclusion and equality – a world where people do not have to fear homophobia, racism, and violence.