The world has always had difficult times. Thinking about the first half of the 20th century, for instance, we went from WWI to the 1918 flu pandemic to the Great Depression to WWII. That’s a lot.
The 24-hour News Cycle
Although families were obviously affected directly by the tragedies of the past, back then, if you weren’t affected directly, it was possible to compartmentalize them. Limiting your exposure was relatively simple: When you were done reading the newspaper, you were done getting the news. You could listen to the radio in the evening but be free of it the rest of the day. Even when television was ubiquitous starting in the 1960s, the news was for the most part limited to certain hours of the day: you could watch TV all the time, but your exposure to the news was still limited to the news shows. If you didn’t want your kids to be exposed, simply watching the 11PM news, after they went to bed, and not talking about the news in front of them took care of that problem.
Things aren’t so simple today, when we all, through our devices, are bombarded by the news 24/7. We literally can’t get away from it, and that includes our children. Once you give them a device, to a great extent you have given up any control you have over what they see. So they can watch ISIS behead a journalist or a police officer kill a Black man, or do research into how severe global climate change really is. As if that isn’t bad enough, there are all of the talking heads who so often appear on “news” shows and make things sound so much worse. It is easy for kids to get traumatized by these awful things, and there is very little you can do about it, short of taking your child’s phone away.
The Overwhelming Tragedy List
There have already been some very big news stories of the 21st century, starting with September 11, 2001, which took us right into war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then we had the Great Recession. Now we have COVID and the reckoning with our past and present social injustice, not to mention the increasingly polarized political situation that is paralyzing our government. But we at Jeff Levin Coaching would argue that we have had other tragedies that also greatly affect children’s outlooks on life. Collectively, we call them the Overwhelming Tragedy List (OTL). Here are a few examples:
- Global warming
- School shootings
- Terrorism—domestic, extremist, etc.
- The opiate epidemic
- A drastically rising suicide rate across the board, from young kids to teens to adults
- A society where just about everybody, child and adult, is addicted to the computers in their pockets
- Massive political rancor and corruption
- An unprecedented and seemingly insurmountable wealth gap where everyone, rich and poor, feels financially insecure.
Silence Hurts Kids
Interestingly, what we have found is that adults don’t talk about these things with the kids in their lives. We don’t know if this is a residual “protect the children” feeling that is left over from times past (even though the horse is already out of the barn, as kids already know about these things), or because the adults don’t know what they can do so don’t see the point in talking about them. Maybe adults avoid them because they are just plain unpleasant and depressing to talk about.
For whatever reason they avoid these conversations, adults not talking about the Overwhelming Tragedy List hurts our kids. Kids know about these tragedies, are worried about these tragedies, are even traumatized by them. However, many kids have no outlet to talk about them, which would be healing in and of itself, and no adult to mirror their feelings or offer hope that maybe, in some small way, things are not so bad and are going to get better. Holding in fears has never been helpful, and these are some really big—and justified—fears. But because the adults never bring them up, this just exponentially adds to the children’s stress.
Of course, the Overwhelming Tragedy List doesn’t just affect kids—it affects their parents, too, and causes them to focus more on protecting their kids from these (and other) terrible things and less on preparing them for adulthood. As a result, many parents use what we call the “New Parenting Playbook,” where vicarious parenting and snowplowing away adversity are daily occurrences in kids’ lives, which, in turn, makes kids even less able to handle traumatic subjects. This new playbook flies in the face of what research—and centuries of parenting—have told us is necessary for healthy child development. This makes our stressed-out and anxious kids even more stressed out and anxious. However, because the important adults around them are silent on these subjects, what are kids to think? Is it OK to bring up their concerns? Should they just grin and bear it? Often, grinning and bearing it and hiding their feelings are exactly what they do, which only compounds the stress.
Kids Want to Talk About the OTL Elephants
We know kids want to talk about these things, because they tell us every chance they get.
For example, in April 2019, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, a large medical services provider in New Hampshire and Vermont, hosted a Youth Summit in Concord, N.H. Inspired by D-H’s Senior Director of Public Affairs and retired Chief Justice of the N.H. Supreme Court John Broderick, who speaks to students across New England about mental health awareness, the Summit brought 350 teenagers together to talk about the challenges that teenagers face today.
One common theme the students brought up was their desire to “talk more about uncomfortable subjects,” such as mental health issues and how substance use, bullying, eating disorders, school violence, and more are symptoms of these underlying issues. Students said they wanted to have more discussions like this in school, more trained counselors, and teachers who connected beyond the subject matter and “on a more personal level.”
We get the same response when teachers or schools invite Jeff to talk about these “elephants” (as in “elephants in the room”), as he calls the Overwhelming Tragedy List subjects, to students. Here is an invitation from a teacher:
I teach an English elective course. In this class, we read literature that discusses challenges that teens are facing, as well as discuss the challenges directly impacting my students based on their own experiences. We often talk about their struggles and stresses when it comes to their future (college, career, etc.), as well as the stresses that come with being a high school student [today] when the fear of an active shooter coming into school are high and prevalent. Some of my students struggle to access technology, food, etc., at home and experience anxiety pertaining to different areas of their lives.
Here was the students’ response to his visit, as reported by the teacher:
- They appreciated that even though you’re older than them, you didn’t judge their generation.
- They want/need more time to discuss these elephants.
- They liked how people chose to open up yesterday.
- They want you to come back!
- They want to open up more about their baggage.
- They want to discuss how to silence the little gremlins [from Rick Carson’s excellent book, Taming Your Gremlin].
- They want to figure out how to talk about their elephants outside of this class.
COVID and Racial Injustice
Enter the latest two tragedies that have come to the fore, COVID-19 and the protests against systemic racism and police brutality. These are two tragedies that adults—parents, teachers, and coaches—are having trouble avoiding. Stuck at home because of the virus, families have had more time to talk about them. It’s been a great opportunity, and many families have had some discussion about one or both of these subjects.
The question is how to move forward from here, or, if you haven’t had any discussion with your kids yet, how to get started. Keep talking, of course! Talking about the OTL is not a one-time thing: it is an ongoing conversation so your children learn that your door is always open and they can discuss with you things in the world that are bothering them—and that their parents, teachers, and coaches will listen without judgment. Even though you can’t solve the world’s problems, just by having these conversations, we are giving kids essential tools to help them better deal with fear and stress on their own moving forward.
The Power of “How’s it Going?”
Don’t underestimate the power of a simple “How’s it going?” Ask your kids—all the time. Listen to their answers without judgment, and they will open up even more the next time. If something horrible is in the news and you know they know about it, ask them how they feel about it.
Notice I keep saying “without judgment.” That is crucial, and it is a skill that must be learned. It isn’t easy. Your kids may have what you may think are whacky ideas about the world—discuss them, by all means, but in an open-minded, neutral, non-judgmental way. If something disturbing emerges from a conversation, consult a professional—someone at school or your child’s pediatrician are usually the best places to start. But your kids will not open up to you if they feel you’re going to judge them.
Another critical component of these conversations is focus. That means that you both need to put your phones down—and turn them off—when you have these conversations. Your child will not feel listened to if you are looking down at your phone instead of looking them in the eye, and your child needs to learn how to listen well, too.
I discuss the OTL with kids frequently, whether I am at a school, working with a team, or meeting with an individual client. We have come up with a program for schools, The Connected Classroom, and its offshoot for athletic teams and athletic departments, The Connected Locker Room, that teaches teachers, coaches, and parents how to deal with the OTL, among other things. With this structure, schools can constructively collaborate with parents in order to help children face and process the OTL, so everyone can take a huge step towards healing. The programs also give kids the tools they need so they can better deal with fear and stress on their own. Our podcasts also touch on this subject frequently.
There is no doubt that these are difficult subjects. But there is also no doubt that just talking about them can make our kids feel a whole lot better. And us, too. I can’t recommend it enough.