Raising compassionate kids in a violent world

logo that hopefully doesnt change colorEditor’s Note:  This post was originally published on 6/24/2016. Through this year’s AP Month theme, “Nurturing Peace: Parenting for World Harmony,” we have been focusing on promoting peace and harmony in the home as well as around the world. This article is a great reminder that despite the many challenges violence can pose, we can still cultivate compassion and peace in our children.

API promotes parenting practices that create strong, healthy emotional bonds between children and their parents. For life.

So they can take those bonds with them into their adult lives and share them with their children. And their children can do the same.

A life cycle of compassion and connection.

Today, we are featuring resources from the National Association of School Psychologists that offer guidelines for dealing with the difficult subject of children and violence — in particular, war and terrorism.

In recent years, increasingly, there have been numerous heartbreaking mass shootings and terror activities in the United States and around the globe.

In the aftermath of such distressing incidents, many parents are wondering how to react: How much information? What and how should we communicate to our kids? And as we reflect on such painful incidents and move towards healing, another imperative question we need to ask ourselves is, What role do we play, as parents to children who will become the adults of tomorrow?

With ongoing wars, mass shootings and terrorist threats, it can be challenging to escape the display of violence from the extensive media and internet coverage — it’s a heavy dose for children to bear. While we should do our best to limit our kids’ exposure to violence, we should also acknowledge that this is the reality of the world we live in, and we need to navigate around helping children find comfort and provide them with the support they need. It is our responsibility as parents and caregivers to address our children’s emotional needs — to that end, they need us to help them understand and cope with the phenomenon of violence.

heart-pain-shadowIt’s unrealistic to think that we can completely shield our kids from being exposed to incidents, such as the recent one in Orlando. Albeit, as parents, we can foster a secure environment in our homes for our children to be resilient in the face of tragedies. API promotes a secure emotional bond in the parent-child relationship — cultivating trust, a sense of security, social competence, confidence, and empathetic qualities in a child…all of which are beneficial when experiencing adversities.

Open communication, honesty, and trust between a parent and a child are essential ingredients for developing a strong relationship — one that is valuable when dealing with sensitive, emotional-trigger situations. This guide explores tips for parents and educators to help children cope with terrorism.

Naturally, children may feel angry and frightened in their reaction to acts of violence. To help them work through emotionally charged issues in a positive way, is it helpful to teach them compassion, empathy, and kindness in our homes and our schools.

The following are some helpful tips to consider in promoting compassion and acceptance in crisis:

  1. Model compassion and acceptance of differences — Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives.
  2. Provide useful information — Accurate information about people, events, reactions, and feelings is empowering. Use language that is developmentally appropriate for children.
  3. Stop any type of harassment or bullying immediately — Make it clear that such behavior, in any form (in person, online, social media) is unacceptable. Talk to the children involved about the reasons for their behavior.
  4. Explore children’s fears — Even children who can describe what happened may not be able to express fears, questions, or describe assumptions or conclusions they may have made. Use activities, role-playing, and discussions to explore their fears about the events and their feelings about various groups from diverse cultures or lifestyles.
  5. Identify “heroes” of varying backgrounds involved in response to traumatic events — These include firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, military personnel, public officials, medical workers, teachers, faith leaders, public figures, and regular citizens who work to help keep students, families, schools, and communities safe.
  6. Read books with your children or students that address prejudice and hate — There are many, many stories appropriate for varying age groups that can help children think about and define their feelings regarding these issues.

Parents are their children’s first and most empowering role models. Meeting our children’s needs by nurturing them with sensitivity, kindness, and compassion serves as a model for children to observe and learn how to conduct themselves in this world. We are making the most precious investment there could be: As today’s children will become tomorrow’s adults, a life cycle of compassion and connection will pave the way for a more peaceful, compassionate world for future generations.

Practicing NVC

After I checked out Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg from my library, I knew I would need to buy it for my personal collection.  It is excellent.  Not only is NVC extremely relevant to parents working towards healthy relationships with their children, but the principals are applicable in any type of communicative relationship….spouses, family members, co-workers, employers, neighbors, and just about anyone with whom we may potentially have disagreements once in a while.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with NVC, know that this approach to communication is a cornerstone of attachment parenting.  Here are the concepts of NVC in a nutshell: it is about feelings and needs.  It’s about setting judgement aside and focusing on communicating how we feel and what we need.

While the book is an inspiring read, it can be difficult to put to practical use…at first.  It was difficult for me in the beginning because I wasn’t used to communicating this way (effectively).  But right away, even for the novice “nonviolent communicator,” it’s easy to start with small steps simply by raising awareness of critical moments in your daily communications; those when it would be easy to impart judgment on a situation.  Instead of judging, I try to re-think my viewpoint and re-phrase my words to be as objective as possible.

What I See: So instead of walking in to the living room and saying, “Oh, what a big mess in here,” I keep my observations clear and straightforward.  “I see books, blocks, scarves, and trucks spread on the floor from wall to wall.”

How I Feel: “I feel tired because I’ve picked up these toys two times already today.”

What I need: “I need order in this room, and I need help to make it happen.”

Will You? “JJ, will you please put the scarves in the basket?  Elia, will you put books back on the shelf please?”

What could easily have started as a judgment (Why are you so messy?), confrontation (You never put your toys away!) and demand (Get this cleaned up now!), turns out to be a cooperative activity, and my need for order is met.

I realize that with toddlers and very young kids, it may be difficult to get immediate cooperation with respect to a person’s needs.  As my kids grow, NVC gets more and more effective, and I especially love it for my husband’s and my interactions.  What takes practice is the ability to distance ourselves from any personal attacks and look for specific feelings and unmet needs.

Anyone new to NVC can start practicing the tactics intermittently.  If I have an observation, feeling, need, or request to convey, I practice stating it nonjudgmentally in as many situations as I can, whether or not there is anything else to express about it.  For example, at breakfast this morning I said, “I see Elia using a fork and JJ sitting down in his chair,” just to practice statements of observation.  To my husband I said, “I feel nervous about my meeting today.”  Or, while making cookies today, “I need the eggs cracked in this bowl.”  Or, this evening, “JJ, would you pick out your nighttime diaper?” All of those events happened independently and did not result in extensive communication, but they gave me a chance to identify and verbalize a sight, feeling, need, and a request.  I continue to look for small moments like those to help me practice.

Right now, I have to sort through my emotions and think hard about articulating my feelings and needs.  It is common for me to say how I “feel” without really stating a feeling.  For example: “I feel like you’re not listening to me.” This statement does contain the word “feel,” but it’s really an accusation, not a true description of how I feel.  I feel insecure.  I feel discouraged.  I feel angry.  Those are more accurate descriptions for how I feel when my need to be heard isn’t met.  The Center for Nonviolent Communication offers lists of common feelings and needs that I refer to often!

Regarding NVC, I also like that only one person in a communication exchange needs to be familiar with the principals to make it effective.  So I can help someone else (like my children) identify their feelings and needs and feel successful in communicating them. “Oh, Elia, I see that you lost your dinosaur toy!  That must make you feel sad…you loved watching him hatch and grow!  Do you need a hug? I’m sorry that he’s gone.  How about if we look for another dinosaur egg the next time we go to the store?”  By offering suggestions or making guesses as to what she is feeling, it gives her a chance to correct me–“No I’m not sad, I’m mad!” This creates a more meaningful conversation and is teaching my daughter effective, empathic communication.

If you haven’t read NVC yet, check it out, and you can join me in my ongoing efforts to practice it!  Effective communication is excellent.

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