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This article is a reprint on how to talk to children about violence. Unfortunately, the information is still timely as shootings continue to occur around the globe negatively impacting children and their development. Regardless of the specific incident, this blog will help parent understand the process for safely communicating with children.
Violence in society is a major issue for families today. It’s everywhere we look, it seems, and as a parent it disturbs me deeply. Part of the job of parenting is to protect our children from the ills, if not the evils of the world, but what do you do when it comes looking for you. Recent sniper attacks, school suicide-killings and the outbreak of fighting around the world, makes talking to our children about violence a necessary responsibility.
It would be easy to wait until our children bring up the issue and not take a lead role in discussing violence with them. Unfortunately, too many children take in the information, attempt to process it with their limited experience and understanding, and never say a word to an adult. Just because they don’t initiate, doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t. For these children, talking about the violence may relieve feelings of anxiety and insecurity they were bottling up inside. Children get their sense of safety from the attitudes and behaviors of adults, primarily parents. How we act and talk will have a direct impact of the emotional well being of children.
The first step to talking to children about violence is to acknowledge their thoughts and feelings about the violence. The best way is the simplest: Ask them what they think or feel. This will give parents a barometer about where the child is at and what concerns need to be addressed. Demonstrate that you are willing to hear it and give your child full attention without judgement. Too many parents are quick to jump into a child’s comments and make them seem invalid. A parent might dismiss their child’s fears as unnecessary: “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “You don’t need to worry about that.” A parent might even reply that the child is being silly, stupid, or overreacting for what they are thinking and feeling. This is a sure method to get a child to shut down emotionally and not communicate with a parent, now and in the future. Get on a child’s level by sitting or kneeling down when talking to them. And get rid of any distractions (i.e., turn off the television or radio). Make the conversation about them not you.
The second step is to clarify and/or reflect back a child’s comments. For example, a parent might say, “Tell me more about your fears of someone killing you” or “What do you mean you think the world is going to end.” This also communicates to a child that what they have to say is important and not trivial. It makes parents more aware of the underlying issues. If a child’s comments are clear then repeat back to the child what you heard them say. Don’t be a parrot; just summarize it, so that you and the child are on the same ground mentally.
The third step is to share your feelings and value about the violence. This means you must be aware of what they are before you ask your child to share. How do you feel about the violence? What is your value-system about killing, death, and violence? Is it a social, moral, or relational issue for you or does it encompass all three. Once you are aware of where you stand, you can communicate this with your child. Share in a direct, simple, and honest manner. How you say something may be more important than what you say. But be sure to say it in a matter of fact way.
What you say will vary depending on your values and the age of your child. Young children have difficulty separating reality from fantasy and it may be important to describe the difference. For example, a parent of a young child might state: “I know that the cartoons you watch sometimes have characters who shoot one another but that is not real. In real life, when someone gets shot they get hurt and they might even die.” Avoid in-depth explanations for younger children. They will lose attention and not be able to process long descriptions. One to two sentences are more than enough. Additionally, parents can use drawings and children’s book about fighting, violence, etc. Always follow up with reassurances that you love them, will do your best to care and protect them, and that they are safe.
Older children may be able to verbalize their thoughts and feelings more distinctly but don’t let that be an excuse not to talk about it. Use the same principles as with younger children but feel free to talk more deeply about the violence. Watch the news report together or read the newspaper article out loud, pausing to discussing thoughts and feelings. Ask them if they know of anyone who has been the victim of violence. The older they are the more likely they will know or have heard of someone. Talk about violence that has occurred towards them or in their daily life, such as school. Guide the older child toward your values without forcing them on them or telling them how they should believe. And look at ways to get involved in your community or through national relief efforts to help victims of violence. Being proactive will give a child a sense of power versus powerlessness.
What we say to children is important and we must say something. Sticking our heads in the sand will not improve the situation. Actually, ignoring or dismissing the topic of violence will increase a child’s anxiety and fears. But even more importantly, how we talk about violence will have profound impact on our child’s sense of self, their understanding of right from wrong, and their relationship with the parent.
Some people have trouble making good decisions. Boundaries are a challenge and saying “no” feels impossible. For others, they are quite comfortable making decisions. They might even enjoy telling others what choices they should make. Parents often feel a need to tell children what to do all the time. They believe that children can’t or won’t make a good choice. As we contemplate the elements of control in our lives, we want to find that balance between laissez faire attitudes and acting like a control freak.
Making choices, even bad ones is a way to feel powerful. Many children and adults will act in the opposite manner just to feel some form of power in their own lives. Authority figures are seen as untrustworthy, no matter how experienced or wise they might be. That isn’t the point for a person who feels powerless. Control and the defiance that often comes with it feels like the only way to find power or freedom.
We value the freedom that can come through choices. It is one of America’s highest personal values. Unfortunately, freedom to do anything one wants, whenever one wants to do it, and not expect any real consequences is not true freedom. True freedom comes when we exercise self-control.
Ask Dr. Seuss, if you don’t believe me:
You have brains in your head,
You have feet in your shoes,
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
Sound advice. The trick is choosing the right direction!
Parents want children to listen and obey because they have more experience dealing with the complexities of life. Children want to assert their control in order to better know themselves. There are specific stages where this most evident, like in 2-3-year-old toddler stage and the 13-17 years of adolescence. The reason these ages and stages are so fraught with power struggles is because the child is going through rapid brain growth, hormonal changes, and social/emotional demands. That requires a lot of self-assertion in order to master it all.
As I have already described in other blog posts, a parents job should resemble a coach more than a director. While this isn’t always possible or practical, it is the healthier approach to successful parenting. A parent TELLS a child what to do. Children can’t become responsible human beings or eventual adults if they rely on parents what to do. Parents can expect more self-responsibility and problem-solving if they don’t let the child make choices.
A parent coach offers choices in order to empower children to learn from their choices. Isn’t this how we all learn? Of course, understanding this approach and performing it in the heat of the “battle” is difficult but that isn’t a reason not to use it. The good news is that the drive to choose is built into our nervous systems. You don’t have to tell a child to have an opinion. They already have one. You don’t have to model how to prefer for one type of food over the other or one game over the other. The child just does this naturally. Coaching allows us to direct what is already inborn. Parents should let it work to their advantage!
Forcing control, although at times necessary, shouldn’t be our primary parenting plan. Parents can give choices for things they approve of…usually two is good. If the child wants a third option, and they will, simply repeat the two choices and when the situation becomes a game, and it will, make the choice for the child. This is where parents can be direct and assert their wills. Pick your battles well in other words.
Researchers on control like to use the words “agency” or “self-efficacy”. I guess it sounds more clinical. The more agency we use in life the more power-full we feel. The more good decisions we make, the more confident we are to try new and more challenging things. Good deciders set bigger goals in life than bad deciders. They get along better with other people, can be better team players, have higher academic achievements and work ethics, and they are healthier and happier people overall.
That all sounds good until you make a few bad choices and start to believe that you don’t have the ability to make a good choice, ever! People who go through trauma often feel this way. Depression is a common hallmark of making bad choices or having gone through bad things. This is what researchers call “locus of control”. Someone with an internal locus of control believes they are the cause of a successful outcome. An extern locus of control refers to things happening by chance or luck. After a traumatic event or series of events, a person can feel helpless and have an external locus of control. If something good does happen, it is random and accidental.
It is possible to have an “illusion of control” where someone feels they can master things they really can’t. They don’t have an overdeveloped internal locus of control and may take on too many tasks or make claims of being able to accomplish tasks that are too difficult. They are ready to accept responsibility for success but blame others/events for failures. This illusion prevents them from really learning how to be successful in life. Much of wisdom comes from making mistakes and then trying a new approach next time.
The answer to all of this may be acceptance of reality. This is a philosophical idea and spiritual practice of letting go of expectations and desires that create most of our on-going suffering. When something happens that we don’t want or we don’t get what we do want, we suffer. The truth is everyone does this and everyone suffers. Acceptance allows us to be aware of it and adapt. We don’t blame others for our mistakes or at least, our part of a situation/problem. We are humble and try to find the wisdom of our failures. We don’t allow others to control us and we don’t use control to deal with anxiety. We simply allow what is to be and find the truth in the experience. As the Bible says, “Truth sets us free” (John 8:32).
Acceptance isn’t another form of helplessness, however. We accept our situation but continue to hope for change. Christians, for example, trust that God’s will, however difficult or uncertain, is the better choice over their own personal will. When the two wills conflict, we submit to God’s will. Continue to control people and events, in order to get what you want, alienates family and friends, and puts tension between your reality and your desire to have what you want. This tension will result in negative emotions and behaviors. Learning to accept and let go will allow using that energy to make the best of your situation. Now that does require self-control!
“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” Eckhart Tolle
“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” William James
“The art of acceptance is the art of making someone who has just done you a small favor with that he might have done you a greater one.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
>> Learn more about “Acceptance and Change” in our Freedom From Anxiety course at http://FamilyHealer.tv
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Whenever we think about the challenges of parents, there is probably nothing more colorful than the problem of a rebellious teenager. Trying to control an out-of-control adolescent can drive a parent crazy!
I want to do a series of blog posts that address the issue of control through the spiritual discipline of contemplation. Contemplation is the act of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time. It is a deeper reflection on the motives and desires of our heart…and out teenagers.
Control, by nature, forces us to react to external behaviors. In the case of a “rebellious teen,” we are faced with unpleasant back talk, arguments, manipulations, curses, eye rolls, blank stares, aggression, lying, stealing, and other acts that defy our rules and morals.
As we contemplate this challenge, ask yourself the following questions:
“What am I trying to control?”
“Am I trying to control out-of-control behavior?”
“Do I want to win? At whatever the cost?”
“Is it possible to have two winners and no losers?”
“Is it really my mission to dominate the will of another person?”
“What is the long-term goal of parenting: relationship or being right?”
“What is better: A change of heart or a change of behavior?”
The idea of attempting to control someone who is out-of-control sounds like war in the making. How can the two things approach one another? This type of control Control ends with no winners. Parenting is not a competition! You do not have to always be right or win every battle. In fact, why is parenting even seen as a battle? There must be something deeper than this relational reality.
If you make two lists with all the things that a parent can realistically control on one side and all the things that parents cannot control in their teenager’s life, you begin to see the discrepancy in the lists. Parents who focus on the child’s side of the list will be more frustrated than those who stick to their own side.
Control is better viewed as a negotiation.
There are things on the parent’s side of the list that the teenager wants and there are things on the side of the teen’s list that the parent wants. There is room for negotiation and working together toward a common goal.
One of the most powerful items on the parent’s list is transportation. The teen needs to get places and the parent has control of the car. An easy trade-off can be negotiated. Chores completed can result in transportation to a friends house, for example. There doesn’t need to be loud, angry words shared back and forth. Just a simple, direct offer to trade chores for transportation. Don’t react to “moodiness”, eye rolling, or slamming doors. I know it’s hard. Focus on the bigger lessons here…
What parents really want is to see their teen make “good choices.” Choices imply a sense of power that allows the child to choose between good and bad and learn from their experiences. Lessons learned are how the neural software, in the teens brain, gets its updates. Suffering the natural consequences of a teens choices can be painful to watch but without teens will never mature and grow up to be the responsible people parents want.
What teenagers want most is power over their lives. In reflection, it would seem the parent and the child are working toward the same goal, right? The parent wants their teen to have the power to make good choices after all. The failure of this contemplation is that teens view power differently. They want the power to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, without consequences. This is their immature view of adulthood. As adults, we know this is just fantasy. The negative consequences of these kinds of choices taught us that power is really about managing ourselves well. Negative consequences will teach our teens this same lesson just like parents had to learn it.
Control is about communication.
Parents believe that they are clear and perhaps they are but continuing to clearly state expectations and needs may have to be repeated. There are split moments of gentle normalcy where parent and teens can really communicate. Use those moments to understand the child’s needs and struggles. Don’t use it to lecture or give advice. Listen and learn to give you more control. Control is knowing how to meet the needs of the child in a way they can cooperate with you.
Powerless people feel like they have no power, so they engage in power struggles to get more power.
Power-full people know they are powerful and learn to manage themselves.
Powerless people must be empowered to know they are power-full too.
Power is unequal. When we view oower as more rights or more choices than this statement is true. But if we view power and control managing ourselves well than it is not true.
Teenagers believe parents have all the power, therefore they believe they must take it from parents in preset to get any power. This do this through power struggles, by rejecting rules, defying directives, and manipulating or lying to parents.
Focus on problems when in the heat of the power struggle.
Parents who focus on the person exaggerate the struggle. Ask the child what is the problem and how do they want to solve it. Control is coaching a child to a logical conclusion even if it means trying answers the parent already knows won’t work. Let them try! Let go of the tug-of-war rope and join the child on their side of the circumstance. Get their perspective on the situation as childish as it seems. Parents TELl children what to do. Coaches ask them how they want to solve their own problems and cheerlead them to a positive conclusion.
In the end, control is an illusion.
We have no control over anyone else. It is a common reaction to feelings of fear and anxiety. The higher our anxiety, the more we attempt to control. The more we feel out-of-control, the more we work to find some area that we can create control. It is the source of our obsessions and compulsions. It creates power struggles in relationships. It concentrates on being right over relationships. It disconnects instead of connects families. Take notice of the areas in life that feel controllable and those that feel out-of-control. Examine the feelings that come with each. Choose to respond and not react to those feelings. Don’t allow the negative lies that feeling out-of-control tries to tell you: You are a bad parent, You are a failure, You are not loved or respected, You are not safe, You can’t trust anyone but yourself, You are destined to feel horrible and lonely. Find alternative truths to declare over yourself to counter these false beliefs. They may not feel true but feelings are not the truth. Control is managing your beliefs which will, in turn, manage your feelings.
Join me for the third seminar in the “Healing the Traumatized Child” series November 26, 2018, from 9 am to 12 noon. The seminar will be held at GraceSlo Church on 1350 Osos St., San Luis Obispo, California.
Healing strategies for traumatized children involve helping children help within the spiritual atmosphere of the home. Let’s explore spiritual strategies that create compassion and loving kindness in our children and ourselves. Transform negative atmospheres into hope-filled realities with this practical training by Ron Huxley, LMFT.
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