Leading through pain

Last week, we elected Donald Trump as our next president. In my circle of friends, business associates, students, family, and just about everyone I talk to on any given day, this was tragic, terrifying, and devastating. Just so you know where I’m coming from.

Since Wednesday, I’ve had numerous people ask me for specific advice and guidance — how do I support my child when I myself am scared or grieving? Which, I realized, is a question that is not limited to parents — how do we all support others, how do we lead or teach, how do we do the work that needs doing when we ourselves are broken?

First, take care of yourself. I cannot stress this enough. Put on your own mask before helping others. Go to therapy. Eat well. Cry when you need to. Drink water. Get out in the sunshine. Take your meds. Hug. Help people if you have ways of doing good that leave you feeling good rather than drained; otherwise, shut the damn door and let those grown-ass adults take care of themselves for a bit. Laugh if you can. But other than in-the-moment, slap-a-bandaid-on-it, or my-job-requires-it care for people, including your children, I want you to put your first and greatest effort toward self-care and giving yourself the love and support you need.

Now. You’re getting the care you need, right? And it’s not from your kids/students/employees, right? Seriously y’all, stop and make sure you’re getting care from appropriate sources, i.e. NOT those people for whom you are responsible or who need care or protection FROM you. The most important bit of advice I can give parents who are hurting is this:  your children are yours to support, not your source of support. Bosses: get support from folks other than your employees. Teachers: get support from people who are not your students. Heck, adults in general: you need to get support from people who are not children. And, yeah, my fellow hurting white people? Don’t add to the burden of being black in America by seeking support (or guidance or reassurance or entertainment) from black and brown people. Just don’t.

Okay, so now we’re prepared. We are taking care of ourselves (which doesn’t necessarily mean we feel good, and that’s okay), we are getting support from appropriate sources. Now we are ready to give support to those people for whom we are responsible, like our kids. Ready? Go.

  1. Don’t make it worse. If a child in your care is NOT feeling sad/anxious/worried/angry about something, no matter how important it is from your adult perspective, then let them feel okay. You do not need to give them something to worry about. One big caveat — parents and care-givers of children of color, children with disabilities, children of immigrant parents, Muslim children, and others may need to do some pre-emptive educating. I’m white so I’m a bad source of advice here. But what I’m reading from parents of color is that they never have the luxury of leaving well enough alone when it comes to telling their kids about the bad news to come, the bad behavior to expect, and the maneuvering they have to teach their kids about staying safe(ish) in a country built on white ableist supremacy.
  2. If your child is articulating specific fears, answer them with specific reassurance. Again, I know this comes from a place of privilege, but whenever possible, it is our job as adults to protect children, not disillusion them. If your white child is worried about his Latino friend’s parents getting deported, you need to reassure her that you and people like you are working to make sure that those parents and their children are protected. Reassure her. Don’t get bogged down in the details — tell her that people are working their tails off to make sure her friend and his family stay safe.
  3. If your child is articulating general fears, don’t give them specifics that might be overwhelming. The example above is more likely from an older child — if your younger child is simply responding and reflecting a general level of anxiety and sadness that he is picking up from school or friends or his community, then give him general reassurance. You love him, you will keep him safe, his teachers care about him and the other students. Remind him of the helpers (tip of the hat to Mr. Rogers): his world is full of people who are helping and working to make things better, so remind him of who they are.
  4. Keep his other care-givers accountable and on message. If your child was care-free going off to school today and came home devastated by what she heard and perhaps only partly understood from her teacher or administrator at school, you need to intervene and let those people know if you believe they are making the problem worse. Now, I know there are going to be some parents out there who use that logic to protest teaching high school students about racism (groan and eye-roll), but I’m talking about the prevalent but mis-guided desire of some educators and administrators to address “everyone’s” fears in a general way. “Everyone” may not be frightened or worried today. If a specific student is frightened and a teacher becomes aware and feels she can help, then she should (see points 1, 2, and 3). But addressing the fears you imagine or even that many students have expressed by talking about all the things there are to be scared of to groups of children…ugh. I have no patience with that. Parents, you must make your expectations of how to care for your child clear to his care-givers. And if there is contention or disagreement that conflicts with your values, if care-givers have stopped giving care and are contributing to your child’s dismay, fear, or anxiety, then agitate, go up the hierarchy, yell, scream, and keep the pressure on our schools to be safe places for children.
  5. Let your child see you helping. Let your child help in age-appropriate ways. Create opportunities for your child to see and feel positive action (if possible). If what you’re able to do right now is write a check for the ACLU, then let your child watch you do that and stick the stamp on the envelope (or, click the “submit” button). Yes, you need to keep your feelings of powerlessness to yourself around your kids; you also need to show them the ways in which you and they can ACT with power.
  6. Keep up the good work. Like everything in parenting (or teaching), this is not a one-time deal. If one specific issue gets cleared up, you can bet that another issue will be coming up behind it. So keep up with your self-care. And keep an eye on your kids’ or students’ actual needs. Give them the reassurance they need, make sure other adults in their lives are giving them appropriate support, let them see you as a powerful actor, and let them BE powerful actors themselves.

Take a breath, y’all. I love you. We can do this, so let’s get to work.



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