Jaycee Dugard’s story is beyond horrifying. It represents an unspeakable nightmare for the parents who lost their child and for the child who not only lost her parents, but lost her childhood and her trust in others and inevitably in herself.
As mothers of children we have a hard enough time dealing with this story ourselves. To think about talking to our children about it is confusing and stressful. But, inevitably they will see truths and untruths splashed everywhere – checkout aisles, TV and the Internet. They will hear friends and older kids talking.
Here are 4 tips for talking to your children about terrible things that happen:
1. Be attentive to your own anxiety
As a mother, I cannot think of a greater nightmare than having my child snatched and never knowing what happened. It is normal to completely freak out and imagine never allowing your children out of the house again. It is normal to want to use this story to illustrate the horrors of what can happen to your children.
However well-intentioned, it is not helpful for us to transfer our anxiety to our kids. It is important to remember that making children more anxious makes them think less clearly. When children are anxious they do not make use of “life lessons” in a way that can serve them in situations of danger. Or keep them out of such situations. All they remember is being terrified by this story, and not knowing what to do with that fear.
We need to take our anxiety to other adults and get it under control so that when our children ask us about this story, we can talk about it without being reactive to our own completely understandable fear and anger.
Mothers who have lost children in this way or themselves been victims of sexual abuse may be retraumatized but this story and need a great deal of support to manage.
2. Be clear about your role
Firstly, our role is to calmly provide information on an as-needed basis. Not to offer more information than our children can handle in terms of their sexual development or their ability to handle this kind of nightmare story.
Secondly, our role is not to freeze up over certain facts in this story. If we are awkward about the facts, that is what our kids remember and they will not turn to us to make sense of things again. We want to show our children that they can bring us ANYTHING and we are available to talk about the facts they brings us as well as their feelings and reactions to the story. And that we CAN provide information when they ask about it, and that we can handle their feelings without freaking out.
This bodes well for the future when teens may have experiences involving sex or drugs that make them feel anxious. We want them to know we can listen calmly and help them work things out.
This is not the time to lecture them about what they should and should not be doing and thinking. This is the time to allow them to express their feelings and help them to make sense of things. Don’t minimize the severity of the story, but also don’t overstate the risk of something like this happening to them. Keep a good perspective.
3. Expect many conversations
Tough issues are not one-conversation topics. Kids process things slowly and with a story this big, more and more facts will be revealed, not to mention the slew of misguided opinions, tabloid lies, and inevitable myths and rumors that will spread. Check in with your kids. Expect them to have different concerns and questions as time goes on. Be available to help them process this.
4. Accepting that some things are beyond our control
I think the hardest and most painful thing for us as parents to deal with, is that we cannot ultimately control the safety of our children. That their safety is not completely in our hands.
Yes, of course, we do everything we can, be as vigilant as we can, but ultimately, everyday with our loved ones is a gift. This is incredibly hard to stomach. A lifetime’s lesson.
This makes us feel helpless and stressed and worried, and that makes us want to micromanage our children. However, focusing on what we can control in terms of increasing our children’s safety is much more empowering. Help kids learn to protect themselves. There is much they can learn about stranger danger. There are some good videos out there that are age appropriate. What can we change in our own home? In our children’s school? In our neighborhoods and community? Our state? Through advocacy? Through education and awareness? Through connecting with other mothers?