The nature of tragedy is that it is out of our control. Ultimately so is just about everything. The nature of parenting is the desire to maintain control. The irony is that in order to best handle times of tragedy and to best maintain influence over our children, we first need to let go of that desire to control.
Instead we tell them what to think and feel, what to say and do. Everything around us tells us that if we do this, take that, wear this and buy that, we will be happy. Rewards and punishments are the way we control and tell them how to be. This method raises our children to focus externally (what will happen to me if…? Or what will I get if…?). They often don’t know how to handle themselves without those external controls. Most of us have lost sight of what we already know — if we could trust ourselves to just listen.
In order to stay calm, do our best work, and have the greatest influence on those around us, we must stop trying to control others. Nobody likes a dictator. Children are no exception. In working with parents all over the world, I find that nothing is harder for parents to do than let go of control.
When tragedy strikes, we try to protect our children from worry and fear. When my daughter was four she was afraid of fire. One Sunday the house next door burned to the ground. My first instinct was to close the door of the room she was in to insure she did not see the fire. Immediately, I realized the futility, and so I carried her to the window to watch. She wanted to get as close as I would allow. She was mesmerized and asked lots of questions over days and months that I answered honestly. The experience helped her through and over her fear, to know it was not the end of the world. It helped her to feel less afraid.
Often our experience of tragedy comes from how those around us deal with it. My father died suddenly in the middle of the night when I was eleven. With all best intentions, my uncle hushed my crying with, “Now, now, Bonnie, none of that.” My mother remained stoic without a tear. She later had a nervous breakdown, and I learned the consequences of stuffing my feelings around tragedy. This is not the way I chose to bring up my children.
Letting go means trusting that our children are strong, capable and resilient. Resilience comes from experiencing all that we have inside us and getting to the other side of big intense feelings — not by denial, belittling, toughening up, or keeping secrets. Our children are capable of understanding truth. They don’t need details they cannot yet understand to feel assured by a parent’s willingness to tell the truth.
For children, tragedy is personal — losing a parent, friend, pet. A terrorist attack or mass deaths will not hit home unless they fear it will happen to them. Imagined tragedy can be as strong — a parent’s death, thunderstorms, a monster attack, a bad guy getting in the house. Whatever it is, children do better when they come face to face with the fear, have a parent’s calm support and understanding, and get through it — sometimes years later. The more calm and centered we are, the more we understand that we have no control of our children’s futures, fears and experiences. The more we understand our role as their guides along their own journeys, the more we can allow them experiences rich with feeling, often unpleasant, to be better prepared for the hard world.
Trusting a child’s capabilities is hard for a parent who was not trusted as a child—a child who was told to listen to someone else, who was ruled by the carrot or the stick, or who was sheltered from the knocks of life. We lack trust in our children to the degree we worry and fear for their safety and healthy development and to the degree we fear lack of control over them.
Your trust is like a constant flow of antioxidants into your children’s veins—trust that your child knows right from wrong; trust that expression of his feelings will never hurt anyone (but bottled up emotions can), trust that he can make good decisions and wants to succeed; trust that sometimes he knows better than you what is right for him, and trust that he will make mistakes, sometimes big ones, which he will learn from when he has your trust that it was indeed a mistake.
Be honest with your children. Don’t try to hide or deny what you know they have been touched by. Keep TV news off in front of young children but do not dismiss or belittle anything they ask or express. Fears will only expand when you dismiss a worried child with, “There’s nothing to worry about.” When your child asks questions or exhibits concerning behavior at a time of stress in the world or in your family, talking about it with facts and assurances will help.
Grow and develop along with your children
If you have used reward and punishment methods to control your young child, your influence and limits will be ignored in the teen years. Influence and limits will remain strong when you give your children more and more responsibilities and freedom to make their own choices and direct their own lives. This requires connection and trust.
Letting go of control and parenting with acceptance, understanding, support, and guidance keeps your influence primary. Control turns them away to find authority among their peers. Your influence and values will always be their rock when life throws the unexpected their way.