At Big Brothers Big Sisters, we have this saying that we are “Bigger Together”. Arguably, there is nothing more important and formative in a child’s life than a healthy relationship with an adult. Therefore, in my opinion, the growing political and cultural tensions in our country are critical to address in our homes, as it provides an opportunity to grow together and learn acceptance rather than to further divide and condemn.
Although so much of what we are witnessing feels unique to us – a global pandemic, racial injustice, and deep political divide; on the other hand, just looking back a few hundred years we see that many of the problems our country is facing are simply new iterations from the past.
Why is this important? Well, in this situation, perspective provides hope and a path forward. To know that our country has been here before and can grow through these challenges and become better for it makes living through them much easier. Children do not necessarily have this perspective. So, often what they are left with is confusion and fear when consuming what is happening day in and day out.
So, as parents, grandparents, and other caring adults in the lives of children, what is our role in helping our kids through this?
First, create a safe space to process what they are witnessing. Our kids can see and feel the collective anxiety and instability. You can model how to process what is going on by regularly expressing what you are feeling. Ask what they have heard and how it makes them feel. We all have the need to feel heard and seen without judgement. Listening without interruption creates a sense of safety, demonstrates openness, and increases the likelihood they will come to you again when they need help in the future.
Next, use this as an opportunity to course correct and create context. As kids express their interpretation of what is going on, this is a great time to correct any misinformation or rumors. Providing a historical foundation and political context is also important. Our democracy is a work in progress, and by design, we need two opposing sides to create tension to put forth well rounded ideas and come to the best decisions about how to move the country forward. Sometimes that tension can become unhealthy or out of balance, which is what we are seeing today. Giving kids a watered-down version of our country’s painful past or choosing not to discuss difficult things like racism and other inequities can leave children feeling split about what they are being told and what they are seeing in the media.
Finally, avoid using degrading language about people when discussing differences in opinion. One of the greatest gifts we can give a child is modeling respect for others and how to have a civil conversation with or about someone we do not agree with. Our kids need to see us speak up about things that matter and learn how to debate the facts. However, what we should avoid at all costs is condemning people simply because we disagree. We all move through the world with a different perspective that is shaped by the times we grew up, our backgrounds and upbringings. Condemning others will not reduce a child’s confusion or fear about what is going on today, in fact it may even create a divide between you and your child. Keep in mind, even our kids may think differently than we do about what is going on.
The bottom line is that our kids are dealing with what is happening whether we are part of that discussion or not. Creating space, providing facts and context, and demonstrating an openness to other ideas can not only help your child manage the tension of today, but also bring the two of you closer.
Written by: Heather Freed, LCSW
Heather Freed is the President & CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois and Contributing Columnist for the Edwardsville Intelligencer.