Nine-year-old “David” came home from school deeply distressed the other day. When his mother asked him what was wrong, he said he’d learned in school that African boys his age have to become soldiers and fight in wars, and that many of them died. “Wow,” said David’s mom, “that sounds like hard stuff.”
She took his coat and his backpack. She cut up an apple and some cheese, poured David a glass of water, and sat down with him at the table. “Start from the beginning,” his mother said gently.
People with children in their lives know that kids are sensitive souls. They pick up on difficult situations even when adults try hard to keep them sheltered. But the American Psychological Association says not only is sheltering usually impossible, it’s also generally not a good idea. Helping kids feel secure inevitably means talking with them regularly and appropriately about hard stuff, not avoiding it.
But how do we actually do it? How do we talk about hard stuff like child abuse, environmental catastrophe, racism, or death, while making sure they aren’t overwhelmed with anxiety?
If you’re at a loss about how to answer questions or even talk about something potentially frightening with your kids, practice with your partner or a friend. Jot down different ways of saying the same thing to make the subject easier to understand. Check your own facts with research, and also know it’s ok to say “I don’t know” to your children when that’s your reality.
Ages and Stages
First and foremost, how we approach hard stuff depends on the child’s age. Mom and osteopath Anne DesRoberts, of Montreal, explains, “Winnicott, one of the founders of attachment theory, said that babies have to grow up with the illusion that their caregiver is ‘all-powerful’ so they don’t discover too soon how helpless they really are. That’s what developmentally appropriate means to me: discovering human vulnerability step by step so it’s not too much too bear.”
Developmental Consultant and Educator Josette Luvmour, in the Huffington Post, breaks it down this way: “Children ages 0-7 need to feel/sense their world as safe—this includes knowing exactly where the boundaries are. Children ages 8-12 need to feel their world is fair. Children ages 13-17 need open inquiry into their ideals.” Knowing your child’s stage and needs can help you frame the discussion. Carefully consider the words you use and the concepts you’re trying to communicate; older children can handle more complexity and more details than younger ones.
Different Topics, Different Approaches
Marni Port, Child & Teen Services Manager at Parent Trust for Washington Children, emphasizes that her strategy for tough talks depends on what the topic or experience is. “My response would be VERY different regarding talking to children about 9/11 versus a death of a loved one, or about direct trauma they have experienced.” If the child has experienced a traumatic event, it’s always best to seek professional help.
Listen…Then Fill in the Blanks
This can be counterintuitive: start with listening and those hard conversations will become easier. But listening opens children up and it gives adults an understanding of what they know and how they’re feeling. Port says openness is key. “I think one of the most important things is to first create an environment where it’s ok to ask anything and then clear up any misunderstandings. So when I had a session on 9/11, I started by asking if anyone had heard people say ‘9/11.’ These kids ranged in age from three years old to teenagers.”
But listening to kids is different from listening to adults and often requires observation. Children often act out their feelings rather than expressing them through words. Therapist Sarah Leitschuh explains that while some kids cry when they’re sad, others become quiet and disinterested in activities they normally like. Listening can mean tracking children’s energy levels, monitoring sleeping and eating, and watching body language to tune into where they are emotionally.
Finally, asking genuine questions is a big part of listening. When we ask children what they know, what they think, and what they believe, they’re likely to feel respected, and that helps build trust. We can show respect by hearing them while also communicating information that might contradict what they’ve been told. Like in all relationships, when the trust is solid, children are much more likely to let go of notions they got wrong when parents correct them compassionately.
Oftentimes parents minimize children’s strong reactions to hard stuff in an effort to make them feel better. Emotion coaching, the subject of my blog post last month, is especially useful here. The basic idea is to be physically close and soft with our kids while we put into words what we think they’re feeling. When a relative passes, it might be, “You’re feeling sad because you know you won’t see Grandma again because she died. This is a very big sad feeling because you were close with Grandma and it’s hard for you to accept that she is gone.” Learn how to sit with children and support them as they express their emotions, knowing that feelings come and go and that this is healthy.
All kids, regardless of age, need security for good mental health. “Remind them that they’ve got lots of grownups in their life helping to keep them safe,” advises Port. “And tell them that anytime they feel afraid, they can ask a grownup to make sure they are safe. Follow up with very practical information that is developmentally appropriate to show that there is a plan in place if something were to happen. Remind them about fire drills. Come up with a plan for safety if there was a house fire. Show them your first aid kid is well stocked.”
This can be especially challenging for adults who know that the children they’re talking with are experiencing hard stuff at home and may not be safe. In this situation, connecting kids with resources like school counselors, trusted relatives, and teachers can make a difference.
The When, Where, and How
How a conversation goes is tremendously influenced by the when, where, and how it happens. If you’re looking for an opportunity to talk to children about a neighbor’s car accident, or the fires in California where relatives live, it’s best to do it when you’re home, the house is quiet, you and your children are calm and well fed, and you’re not exhausted.
Consider settings in which other important and intimate conversations have happened organically and gone well. Some families talk well in the car, but this can cut off the possibility of connecting physically, something very comforting for children. A walk is a good setting, if there are few distractions. Because nighttime is often scary for young children, it’s best to have difficult conversations well before they go to sleep.
Framing the conversation in a particular way can also impact its success. One mom chose to broach Internet safety by saying an adult friend of hers needed advice, and she asked her child for his thoughts. This showed the child that Mom valued his opinion, something very empowering for a young person.
Also, keep in mind that conversations with children, unlike with adults, are often truncated. If we think of these discussions as ongoing, we’re likely to be more tuned in to how our kids process information and emotion, and we’ll do a better job at both reassuring and correcting misinformation.
Books and Videos
Many educators and parents start with a story as an entree into rough terrain. Some good books about grief are The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst, The Berenstain Bears Lose a Friend by Jan Berenstain, and The Fall of Freddy the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. The Guardian has a good list, both on bereavement and climate change. Some favorites on racism include Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport; additional books on racism here.
Changing Our Behavior
Sometimes we’re doing things we don’t even realize are impacting children negatively. Mom Kim Gayler in Los Angeles says her eight-year-old son was upset by what he heard on the news, which he heard when passing through the living room. Now Gayler and her husband turn the volume down. It can also be helpful to have boundaries on media reporting of a crisis or tragedy. Even adults can benefit from this. While we don’t want to stick our heads in the sand, we also don’t need to spend an hour online looking at photos of a murder, flood, or car accident either.
This is a very concrete way for both adults and children to deal with hard stuff. Mom and educator Kris Pavek, of Barre Vermont, explained that her daughter feels full of anxiety because of she feels she lacks the power to change anything. “We support her by pointing out the things she can change in her community and also making her aware of the many strong women in history who did make change.” Together, mom and daughter selected a challenging high school that will give her solid leadership tools. Pavek suggests to “…offer a child-size solution: kindness, picking up litter, shutting off lights, walking to one’s activities.”
Action can also take the form of play. Des Roberts: “Gordon Neufeld, a developmental psychologist, talks a lot about processing difficult stuff one step removed through play. He talked about a father in Israel who played a ‘surprise’ game with his six-year-old daughter, running after her and ‘alarming’ her in particular ways. He said, ‘How is she going to bear the bombs if she doesn’t have a safe place to process this smaller ‘alarm?’”
Rosemary Sullivan, grandmother and mother of three grown children, says she brought her children to protests when they were little. “ We marched for women, we marched for human rights, we marched for peace. We did it all, and we talked about it all.” The result? “My children are incredibly, kind, conscious human beings who experienced responsibility for the future of their world from an early age.”
Teenagers are at an especially good developmental stage for action. Des Roberts discusses an experience when she was a teen: “I took part in a leadership program where we played a game that started by advantaging certain people, including me. We kept getting ‘richer’ and winning over the disadvantaged kids. We had a couple of rules to follow, and the ‘lesson’ ended up being that we could have added new rules, or transcended them so that cooperation and fairness could prevail. I could have also shared my ‘tokens’ with others so we could all benefit. I never forgot that lesson about privilege.”
Finally, seeking help when you need it can be the best action to take. Gayler: “I think it’s good for parents to remember that many times, the parent is metabolizing the experience while helping the children handle it, whether it’s the chronic low-level anxiety of a bad political environment or the deep pain and crisis of personal loss. Professional help can be good in these situations. I called a bereavement center when a family member died to find out how to talk to my then four-year-old. That 40-minute conversation helped me enormously.”