The one thing that mother of Sandy Hook victim Josephine, Michele Gay, wanted other parents to know was that "the day to day is what will protect us," she told Romper in December. What she meant was that while metal detectors and gun legislation are ways to mitigate gun violence, her personal emphasis as co-founder and executive director of Safe and Sound Schools is on building tight-knit communities that support every child and prevent things from ever getting to the point where a gunman enters a school.
It is a hard lesson — checking in with your children every single day, building on your relationship slowly as they grow feels like a very soft defense against an existential threat. But what ongoing gun violence has shown us this year is that shootings ricochet through communities emotionally and psychologically. Barriers don't help with that aspect of it.
So let's take this difficult year as a reminder to talk to our kids.
I recently hopped on the phone with Dr. Harvey Karp, CEO of Happiest Baby, and author of all those books you clung to through infancy for some advice on dealing with my 3-year-old's tantrums. Dr. Karp advocates what he calls "toddler-ese" — essentially repeating your child's feelings back to them in the same way they express them to you.
"Really caring… helps," he told me. "It's no different than if you are speaking to a great adult friend who is very upset."
In Happiest Toddler On The Block, Dr. Karp suggests using bedtime to get in some sweet talk with your child — talk about what they loved about the day, and what they're excited about for the next. Many kids will open up at bedtime with the lights lowered, tucked in under their dinosaur quilts, a yellow rubber spatula in the crook of their arm.
My mother-in-law discovered this on her own: she swears by bath time for finding out what has been bugging your toddler. Sit them in the water and it all comes pouring out, she has told me more than once.
The things that upset my 2-year-old might not make sense to me — not being allowed to sleep with a metal whisk, for example — but what I can do is acknowledge his feelings, express true empathy for his desires. The world is unfair to toddlers, says Dr. Karp. We adults make all the rules, and should let our kids "win" once in a while. You can make a real show of it: "Oh you win again! You're always winning!"
Really caring… helps.
You can also take a leaf out of the book of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and get down to your child's level to show that you want to hear what they have to say.
Of course when our kids get older, it gets trickier to keep those bridges open. I recall undocking myself sometime in the early teens and refusing to receive transmissions from my parents until I was well into my twenties. At the same time, teenagers face profound stress. A 2014 study published by the American Psychology Association found teens reporting higher levels of stress than adults.
As Lisa Damour wrote for the New York Times, one way to increase the chances your teenager will accept advice is to simply ask them if they would like you to share it first. We can't (and shouldn't) solve all our children's problems, but as Damour writes, "There’s more value in providing tender, generic support than we might imagine."
Cognitive coping skills can also help teens, per a 2016 study in the Journal of Adolescence. "Perspective taking was uniquely associated with decreased withdrawal from conflicts," concluded the study's authors. For some examples of how teens can reframe unhelpful "tumble dryer thoughts," you can look at the "cognitive coping cards" outlined by Anxiety Canada.
I know this week has seemed like a very bad one. Being told to "talk to your kids" might seem like a small thing, but a couple of words out of your kids' mouth can make a huge difference.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.