In this week’s edition of Fatherly Advice, a dad, unsure of how to talk to his frightened elementary-aged kids about school shootings, seeks advice on how to make them feel safe. Then, we respond to a husband concerned that his wife’s tendency to go silent during arguments is putting a dangerous strain on the relationship. Is there a way to get her to open up when they fight? Is there a way to be honest about violence? Absolutely. But the devil is in the details.
I drive my kids to elementary school in the morning. It’s maybe a 20-minute ride and I usually have the radio on listening to the news. It’s never really been a problem until the other day when they reported about that school shooting in Colorado. I tried to turn the radio off real quick and I didn’t think my kids heard anything. But then the next morning my 8-year-old was really quiet and he was saying he didn’t want to go to school. When I asked what was going on and if he was sick or anything he said he was scared because what if a bad people came in and started shooting.
At first, I thought he was just making it up but he did look really scared and he was tearing up and stuff. I honestly did not know what to say, but I told him he was safe and it wasn’t going to happen and then he asked why they have to practice then, and I really did feel like a liar. But he did go to school after some hugging and telling him it would be okay. He was okay later when he came back from school.
My question is how do I talk to him about this stuff and still be honest? Is there a way I can make him feel better about going to school or talk to him about school shootings so he doesn’t feel scared? How can I make him feel safe?
Chase, the first thing I’m going to recommend is that you turn off the news in the car in the morning. At least until your kids are delivered to school. Maybe opt for some classic rock. Or maybe even a cool kid’s podcast like “Wow in the World” or “Highlights Hangout.” Anything would be better than the doom and gloom of news coverage. They’ll inherit the damaged world we’re leaving them soon enough. We don’t need to have them worrying about it in the meantime.
Of course, I suspect that you already arrived at this conclusion independently. Seeing the fear in your kid’s eyes can be pretty jarring. That said, there is some science about why it’s important to keep your kids away from the news for a while. It turns out that while it appears like elementary school kids are better able to grasp the complexity of new stories, they are still super terrible at understanding what risk those stories might pose to them. A school shooter in Colorado is as real and present as a school shooter in their own backyard. The distance between them and Colorado makes zero difference. To them, the danger is present and real. You can’t contextualize news using numbers until a kid is much older. And without that context, the news can become a series of perceived threats.
As your son so aptly pointed out, the danger of school shooters is further reinforced by active shooter drills in school. And it’s unlikely those drills are going to come to an end anytime soon because we are nowhere near solving the problem of school shootings. That means the likelihood of your kid being frightened again is pretty high. Much higher, in fact, than the chances he’ll ever become a victim of gun violence in his school.
And that’s what you are going to have to stress to him. Your job is to tell him that you and other adults want to keep him safe and will do that to the best of their ability. It’s also, to help him understand that there are bad people in the world sometimes but we are always looking at for them and they are few and far between.
I recommend asking him about how he’s feeling now, after being afraid to go to school. Ask him if he has any questions. But only ask if you are prepared to listen and answer honestly. And when I say honestly, I do not mean explicitly. You will not, for instance, want to go into the gory details of what it’s like to be shot. You probably won’t want to talk about psychopathy or other explicit mental health issues. Tell the truth, but tell it simply. Try to use non-threatening language: bad guy instead of a shooter, or harm and hurt, instead of kill. Remind him that just like fire drills, the lockdown practice in school is meant to help keep him safe. The chances of his school actually catching on fire are about as slim as a bad guy trying to harm him in school. But you practice anyway.
The idea is to be as reassuring as possible. And above all, let him know you and his teachers are looking out for him always. That is not a lie.
Between managing the information he receives about the big bad world and assuring him that he is safe and sound with you and his teachers, he’ll probably start feeling better. In the meantime, hopefully, we adults can start talking about real solutions for school shootings to save future fathers from having these conversations too.
My wife and I have been struggling recently. We’ve had some financial stress and it’s kind of taken a toll. We don’t argue in front of the kids or anything. In fact, usually we try and save the big discussions for after they go to bed.
The problem is that these discussions will often get heated and as soon as I show any emotion, she basically just shuts down. Like she just says uh huh uh huh and like walks away without finishing what we were talking about. And that just means that these issues keep being raw and the next day we’re just doing the same thing.
How can I make her open up when we get into an argument? Because we aren’t getting anywhere and it sucks.
This is very much a communication problem. But you’ve already reached that conclusion. Where you might be on the wrong track is in thinking that if your partner stops shutting down things will get better. That’s because effective communication requires two people who are willing to do the work. It doesn’t help that your wife is shutting down. At the same time, you mentioned that it happens when you get emotional. In other words, there’s a chain reaction of bad communication happening here. Breaking that chain will help.
It’s really, really great that you two are arguing out of earshot of your kids, particularly if it can get emotional. But pro-level parent communicators are able to have disagreements on a wide range of topics in front of their kids. That’s what I want you to aim for. Kids need to see their parents disagree and work through those disagreements — it helps them understand that people can work through opposition. But I only want you to do that if your communication is healthy.
I know that when your wife stonewalls you might feel like she’s being too cold as your getting hot. That can be wildly annoying. You want someone to approach the issue with the emotion that you feel the moment requires. But understand that what’s going on below that silence is likely emotional chaos. Consider it like a power surge that has tripped a breaker. Much in that same way, stonewalling is a kind of emotional safety measure to keep your wife from overload.
So here’s what I’m going to suggest: Try to keep these arguments from becoming too emotional. You can do that by talking about how you’re feeling rather than showing how you’re feeling through a raised voice or angry words. Talk about what’s going on and how it’s making you feel. Own those emotions too. Don’t blame anyone else. If you do see your partner shutting down, suggest you both take a time out. You may both need time to breathe and think for a second before coming back and starting again. That break may be just enough time for your partner to release the pressure valve and start talking again. It might give you a bit of time to cool down too.
Your goal in all of this is to try and be as calm as possible. Good communication doesn’t happen at high volumes. If you need to, you might even consider changing the venue. Find a quiet room, turn down the lighting a bit and turn on some meditation music. It might feel silly, but it also might just give you the environment you need to keep the emotional fires low and the conversation moving.