Martin Luther King Jr said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
One of the valuable lessons I learned from having a child in crisis is just how much the flow of our family depends on each of its moving parts. Each person in our family is so interconnected that when one of us sways off course, everyone else feels the effects.
As a child’s mom in the juvenile justice system, this journey, especially in the beginning stages, felt like it absorbed every ounce of my emotions and attention. That’s what is so crazy about trauma; it barges into our lives, taking over all of our time and attention, and yet life continues on all around us. We still have other children that wake up every morning with the same routines, sports, school activities, and bedtime schedule. We still have laundry to do, dishes to wash, and bills to pay. There are still holidays and birthdays to celebrate. None of that goes away, and we do our best to maintain a level of normalcy, but everyone in our home is very much aware that things are different.
Our children sense when things are off. Their little minds never stop engaging in this world around them. In fact, I wasn’t surprised to learn that recent studies show babies are not only tuned into their mama’s emotional state, they actually show physical signs of stress when their moms are under stress. My kids were no exception. They may have been at different stages in development, but they were always quick to notice even small cues that I was feeling stressed. When my fingers pressed up against my temples, or I let out a heavy sigh, it never went unnoticed. Even as I did my best to keep life normal for them, it always surprised me how often they would spontaneously ask, “Mom…are you o.k.?”
My mind would do this mental recap of what had happened to make them ask me that, and then I’d beat myself up for not being better at protecting them.
The truth is… there’s no hiding this from them. And when we spend our energy trying to convince our littles that everything is perfect, we miss out on the opportunity to share the lesson that life offers us through this trial. So instead of focusing on protecting them from this hardship, maybe it’s time we shifted our focus to equipping them for it. Is it possible for us to model resiliency and love while we learn, together, how to deal with shame and grief in a healthy way?
Siblings with a brother or sister facing criminal charges know something is going on. While they probably haven’t been given all the details, we must remember that they are very much a part of this process with us. They’re feeling the loss and disruption to their family, just as much as we are. And learning to process those feelings is important to their well-being.
Our goal in our conversations with them is to normalize the feelings we are all experiencing because the last thing we need is more shame. This won’t likely be a one-time conversation rather a series of mini discussions. Kids aren’t always big talkers. They don’t usually break down complex situations verbally with a desire to work through every detail the way some adults do. Instead, you’re more likely to witness them crying or having an outburst and then watch them quickly change gears to laughing and playing, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Take opportunities to offer love and reassurance as they arise, and do your best to keep the communication lines open. Seeing grief and sadness in our kids can make us uncomfortable, but we can’t regulate how, when, or how long they’ll feel it. Ignoring it or minimizing it by saying we just need to “get over it” prevents us from ever finding emotional peace. Remember to check in with your children from time to time and ask how they are feeling, particularly if they are having an off day or acting out of character. They may not pinpoint where their feelings are coming from but creating space where you are emotionally available for them will help keep those lines of communication open.
We can’t erase the pain, but we can minimize the trauma they face by communicating with our words and actions that we are strong enough to endure the challenges life brings our way. Listen, I know that some of you who are reading this today are feeling so overwhelmed. You hear all of this, and it just gives you one more thing you need to be concerned about. Trying to be a parent while repairing yourself mentally and emotionally may be one of the hardest challenges you ever take on. But please hear this…Nothing is wasted.
The effort it takes to have these tough conversations with your children will open the door to blessings in your family. It forces you to slow down, to step outside of yourself, to talk through your feelings, and to examine how this impacts the ones you love most. You might find that you walk away from those moments of playing catch or building with legos feeling better too. See, these are the moments you actually can control. These moments, unlike others, are not decided for you; instead, you get to create them with intention. You get to choose how you will lead your family through this. You get to influence the takeaways from this season. Don’t underestimate the power in that.
For more on talking to your children about their sibling’s arrest or incarceration, listen to: