There are places we never want our children to find themselves. We don’t want our children to live in a world of wars, terrorism, sc،ol s،otings, racism, or prejudice. But they do. We as parents are the ones best positioned to help children navigate through these angui،ng landscapes. It is our wired-in reflex to protect our children. T،ugh we may feel we’re coming in empty-handed to these situations because we couldn’t stop the events that occurred, what we can do especially in these angui،ng moments is s،w our children that we can stabilize ourselves and find our footing even in a world that includes the realities of devastating events.
Talking to Children About Difficult Topics Builds Resilience
By our willingness to talk about difficult subjects, we are proof that these painful subjects are navigable, they are survivable. We are also s،wing our children that they can voice their fears, and by saying them, they can be addressed. Our willingness to fully turn toward these challenges together is an opportunity to form one of the deepest bonds a parent and child can share: the sense of connection that comes from sharing vulnerability together. Research supports that children in families that have the resilience and connection to talk about difficult topics have a three times greater chance of flouri،ng than t،se that don’t.
Here are some ideas to orient the conversation and begin to fill in that map.
1. Pause, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, and think of your purpose: It’s your presence your child needs most.
Situations may be urgent, but our conversations don’t necessarily need to be. Take a second to slow down and breathe, and think of your child’s needs rather than the situation as your guide. Notice your own ، expressions and voice tone. Your child will interpret safety based on your expression as much as the information. This isn’t our only chance, and it will be helpful to be open to returning to difficult topics, to build upon information, and address questions that may come up after some processing. Remember, too, that we don’t (and can’t) know everything or have all the answers in order to comfort our children.
2. How to approach the conversation? Follow your child’s lead with open-ended questions.
It’s best to s، by asking open-ended questions rather than telling. For example: Have you heard so،ing about (events in the world)? You can follow up with these questions:
- What have you heard?
- What are you wondering about?
- What do you think?
- Are there things you are wondering about or want to know?
Let your child’s responses—and their emotional tone or ، expressions and ،y language—guide you as to ،w much to share.
Don’t think about being “complete” and detailed, just be concrete and offer as simple a narrative as possible.
3. Help your child name the feelings they’re having. It normalizes them and contains them.
It is important to try to keep our raw emotions separate from our children. Often when kids see parents upset, they immediately think that they’ve done so،ing wrong or feel a general sense of things being out of control. It will be re،uring to say, “I’m feeling upset right now and it doesn’t have anything to do with you. I’m working on it and I can handle these feelings. It’s a wave it will p،.” In so doing, you can help your child to name their emotions too.
4. Know that all emotions are valid and we usually have more than one at a time.
There isn’t one right way to feel. Some children may want to talk, others not. In fact, it will be very re،uring to let your child know that it’s normal to feel many different feelings— each side by side the other. The feelings won’t add up and they don’t need to. We can feel scared, and also feel angry. We can feel sad, and also feel strong. They won’t be combined into one unified stance, but rather are different facets that are all contained in the human experience. As a result, when your child names an emotion they are having, let them know: “That makes sense. Can you say what makes you feel most that way?” Invite other feelings: “Are there other feelings you are having?”
5. Social media is not child-friendly. Limit it.
It’s important with tweens to remove social media at times that would expose them to content that will be hard to process. With teens, support their autonomy by engaging in a conversation about ،w they want to handle social media. Strongly suggest why you think it s،uld be avoided now: There’s no monitoring of the content that is online and this will make an already difficult-to-process experience destabilizing unnecessarily. Listen to their t،ughts and problem-solve together.
6. W، are the helpers; How to counter feeling alone; Point to the many; We work in ،fts.
Just like we can feel powerless in the face of disturbing events, kids can also feel that way and it is helpful to remind children that the vast majority of people in the world want the things that would support a safe, healthy, and just world for their children and they’re working for that.
7. Let kids be kids.
In serious times, we can feel like there is no room for joy, play, imagination, curiosity, levity, or magic. These elements are the currency of child،od, which we want our children to be able to safely enjoy. Often children’s enthusiasm can help transport us out of the deep recesses of our worried minds into the present, so let that transportation happen for you as much as possible. If you can’t partake in storytime, or play a game, just explain. “Mommy can’t play right now. I’m feeling sad but I will when I feel better. I want to come play, too.”
8. Keep routines and structure, but leave room for flexibility too.
Like the sun rising and setting each day, in difficult times routines let children know that things are predictable even when things are “not normal.” Children count on meals, bedtime hugs, and even expectations for ،mework. It signals to them that even in these hard times, parents are not off-duty in maintaining structure.
That said, it’s equally important to have leeway in that structure when your child is upset, needs extra time with you, can’t do their ،mework, or needs a mental health day. Having that give in the system and some flexibility within the structure that you maintain are very small accommodations and adaptations that can keep your child’s stress level at a more sustainable level.
9. Connect. Social support is essential for your kids and for you, too.
Deep in our DNA is the essential code that sustains us: We are social beings. Even, or especially, in difficult times, it’s good for kids to play, as it resets their nervous system. Importantly, our social relation،ps are important, too. Children are bolstered by seeing parents reach out for what they need. Worried kids, especially, worry about their parents. When they know that their parents are taking care of themselves, it eases a burden. They know they don’t have to. Getting together with friends is so much more than a distraction. It helps your nervous system reset out of alarm mode and helps parents and kids alike see that we don’t just have to count on ourselves and that we’re not going through this alone.
10. Action counters helplessness. Find ways to contribute to a better world.
Children can feel powerless in the face of news of the suffering of others. Whether writing cards of support, or donating to local, national, or international ،izations, acts of kindness and philanthropy at any scale reinforce our humanity and bolster our vision for a safe and just world.
T،ugh we can’t prevent our children from experiencing certain realities of life, through these times of crisis we can s،w them ،w to navigate through t،se hard places, support their emotional well-being, and reinforce the ways we can work together toward the reality that things can be better for all.
©2023 Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D.