I think it’s an understatement to say that the past few days have been some of the most stressful and worrisome for parents around the world. To know that the United States (and the rest of the world by proxy) has been placed at risk, that the title of “Leader of the Free World” has been given to a misogynist, a bully, a sexual assaulter, a fraud, a racist, a fear-mongerer… (I could go on, but I think we get the point) has caused too many parents to wonder “what do I say to my kids?”
I have to admit that was one of my first thoughts was… “what will happen to my little ones through all of this”. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again – when a world leader gets acclaimed for saying the most hateful things, we see an increased trend in our kids to mirror that behaviour.
After all, kids are sponges. They are looking up to us to figure out how best to interact with others, how to gain popularity and success, and how to protect themselves from people who would want to hurt them first. It’s understandable that they would take a lesson down from the most talked about TV personality in the current news cycle.
I’m currently working on a new project. Rachelle and I have decided to open up a new website and non-for-profit organization, where we will help parents, kids and teachers learn to deal better with bullying so that they can keep their Heads Held High. Until then though, I see people’s worries and distress and thought I would write in with a few tips about how to deal with the little ones at home, and how to talk to them about all of this so that our kids don’t sink as low as Trump.
If I had a dime every time I read “talk to your kids”, I would probably never need to work ever again. Personally, I get so frustrated when I read this, because my first thought is “okay, but what do I say???” So no, this isn’t just another article that will remind us to keep an open dialogue because “duh!” The question is, when talking to our kids, what should we focus on? What are the things that worry kids the most about these issues? How do we help them (and us too) grow from this? When your kids come home worried, because they were hurt by what Donald Trump (or other bullies have said), and that they are wondering if it means that they will be less safe, here are a few things to focus on when you talk to them about it:
- Ask them how they feel and what they think about the situation: All too often, we tell our kids that they shouldn’t worry, or they shouldn’t feel a certain way. It’s totally understandable to not want to see our kids suffer, to be able to look beyond something and not be affected by it, or to think positively through it. But getting to that point is a process and we need to remember that it can be our job in this to help our kids get to the point where they are less worried, and less bothered, and can think positively through it. So how do we bring them there? The first step is to recognize that their feelings are understandable. That you get it. “I hear what you are saying, and I get why you might be feeling that way” is a good place to start off. It might sound basic, it might sound like a detail, but it’s so important that our kids feel like we understand them, and that they are normal.
- If your kids don’t know how to name their feelings, make some suggestions. (Telling you that they feel bad by the way is not a feeling!). “Are you feeling sad? Hurt? Lonely? Angry? Frustrated?” It’s much easier for a kid to pick out feelings from a list. Once they’ve told you what feelings they have, you can then ask them “what is it about this situation that makes you feel frustrated? What are the events that have made you feel that way?” This question can open up a door to your kid’s mind and let you see what your kid rarely tells anyone – their observations, their thoughts, and their internal dialogue about the things that happen around them.
- Maybe at this point, your kid has confided to you that they are feeling sad because they saw their friend being picked on by someone else, and that person used the same words as Donald Trump. That they are afraid because they are thinking that things will only get worse. At this point, your first idea might be to get angry and call the school or the other kids parents and rage on! But it might not be the best idea. So what do you focus on? “Then, what happened”? “How did everyone else react to these comments?” “What did you do about it in the moment?” Sometimes kids focus on a terrible event, and leave the rest aside – how for example, when their friend got called a name, they stood up and told the bully to leave him alone! How everyone around the bully got uncomfortable and told him to back off. How a teacher was walking by and stopped the situation. So when talking to your kid, explore what happened around that situation, try and find the things that were encouraging, that were positive.
Help them see that in a world full of big-league hate, there will always be people who will stand up and fight – that will grab a victim by the hand and say “you’re going to be okay”.
Just as when Michelle Obama famously claimed “When they go low, we go high” help your kids find the sources of light in their environment.
- Help your kid understand why people bully. All too often, we villainize the bullies, try to make them into monsters so that we can learn to fight them off. However, the opposite is true. For your kids to overcome bullying, for them to keep their heads held high, they need empathy, they need understanding. Bullies don’t bully because they are being possessed by the devil, or because they are sinners, or because they are sociopaths. They bully because they are afraid and insecure. Some people bully because they want to be the best, and they think that to keep their social standing, they have to squash others down. Some people bully because they are afraid of being hurt and take on the attitude “get them before they get me”. And so in this case, it’s so easy to take Donald Trump’s personhood to help your kid understand this. Donald Trump uses fear as an ally to place himself on top. He encourages his followers to listen to their fears and make it okay to shut immigrants out, because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Donald Trump hates to lose, so he defrauds others to make sure he ends up on top. At the end of the day, by taking the Don’s big person, and exposing him for an insecure little boy who has built up this big personality to push people away from him, it makes him a lot less scary. And in the same way, by helping your kid see his or her bully in a more human light, by helping your kid see that the bully is just as insecure and unsure as him will allow your kid to look him in the eye and see through his charade a lot more effectively. And most importantly, it will help him or her know how to stand up and say “This isn’t right!”
- Ask your kid how they can help: Just like we are encouraging people to step up and become social activists, and are using this scary situation as a way to change the way we vote people into office, encourage your kid to do their part to make their school a safer place. Here are ways your kid can help:
- If they are shy, encourage them to walk up to someone being bullied around them after the fact and say “hey. I’m sorry you just went through that. I wanted you to know that I don’t think that what that guy said is true. And I’ve been there and I know it sucks. Do you want us to hang out together?” By allowing your kid, who is usually a target, to become a hero to someone else in the same situation, you are allowing him to build his or her self-esteem, and help him feel better by making sure someone else is hurting less.
- If your kid is friends with the bully, encourage him or her to speak up to their friend and say to them that they should stop.
- If your kid is the bully, make sure that you gain an understanding of what is going on in your kid’s life that lead him to want to push others down. Chances are that he or she has been bullied, or is going through something rough and are trying to make sure they are left alone. Brainstorm other ways with your kid to defend him or herself. Help them raise their self-esteem in more constructive ways (my next blog post will be on this point). Tell them that maybe in the moment, bullying others feels good, but at the end of the day, hurting others to defend yourself rarely makes things better – it propagates violence that no one really wants to experience, and it dirties your hands in the process, which can sometimes be hard to live with.
Remember that Donald Trump was voted into office and maybe you’ve lost a bit of faith in humanity… But people didn’t only vote him in. Just before that, they voted for Barack Obama, which is awesome! That despite all the attempts to make Hillary Clinton into a target, to sully her character and her name, she got MORE votes than Trump, and that people DID choose her! That in Canada, when Stephen Harper used politics of division to get elected, people turned around and chose the guy who talked about hope and wanted to find ways to bring people together. Justin Trudeau won because he inspired people. And at the end of the day, hope is a lot more powerful than fear.
At the end of the day, here is the lesson I have learned: people are human, people are scared. Just as Republicans who have voted for Trump are terrified of Democrats and their policies that go against their religious tenets and conservative outlook on life, Democrats are scared of Republicans. People are just trying, in their own ways, to make the world a better place. And sometimes, fear allows people to screw up and make the wrong choice. Even Hitler came into power and got a platform for his hate because his people were suffering the consequences of previous decisions and wanted to get control back. And so when your kids are worried about the future, tell them that us adults are going to work really hard to make sure that people know how to face their fears, look beyond them, and make sure that we leave the world a better place for our kids. But that we might sometimes screw up in the process and they can learn from it.
And that everything will be okay.