Even though the world is a wonderful, colorful and curious place, there is no escaping its darker side —tragedies and violence whose meaning and point escapes even us, grown-ups, let alone children who have no understanding of inner workings of the world and are only used to the loving comfort and take trust and being safe for granted. The need and desire to protect our youngsters is instinctual and often times we try to take it as far as we can, shielding them from even hearing or seeing unpleasant things on TV. Unfortunately, our reality is also that of gun violence, terrorism and bullying, and if they don’t hear about it on TV, they might hear from friends.
Sooner or later we are going to realize that it is impossible to protect them from everything and everyone, and frankly – we shouldn’t. We should provide them with enough love and support so that they themselves can develop coping mechanisms and strength. But what do you do when you are face to face with your child who has questions you don’t quite know how to answer?
How to talk to kids when the goal is to help them overcome fear, explain cruelties of reality and maintain their innocence at the same time? Not an easy task, but here are some guidelines recommended by psychologists.
“Kids are big thinkers, and their imaginations are not limited to fun, carefree topics,” explains clinical psychologist and author Stephanie O’Leary. “When you have honest, age-appropriate conversations about scary things, you provide an outlet for your child’s feelings, model healthy coping and establish that you are a source of support, even when topics are uncomfortable or frightening.”
Age-appropriate ways to talk about violence, racism and other tough topics often need to follow two rules: they need to (a) inform/educate and (b) comfort kids.
- Respect Your Child’s Sensitivity
Dr. Paul Coleman, a family therapist, father and author of the book “How to Say It to Your Kids”, says: “A parent should already have some indication from the child’s reactions to other events — real or imagined — on what the child can handle.” “A child easily frightened by things (people dressed up in costumes, certain scenes in a kids’ movie, unexpected sounds) would not handle very disturbing information. When it comes to news, all children want to know is how the news will affect them personally, or affect their family.” In this case, you can let them know what happened with as little details as possible and immediately go on to reassure them that you are all safe from it.
- Take What They Say Seriously
It’s normal that children can be disturbed by certain things that they hear or see. If that’s the case, it’s up to us as their parents to validate those fears and provide reassurance. “Once you know their fears, you need to explain why the scary situation would not apply to them,” says Dr. Coleman. “Or if it could apply, you need to explain the precautions you, as a parent, are taking to protect them. Kids want to believe they can trust their parents.”
- Don’t Dismiss Your Child’s Feelings
Don’t laugh at your child or look too surprised when he or she admits he/she is scared or sad. “Allow her to express what she feels and allow her to talk about it,” says Marjolaine Limbos, PhD, a registered psychologist. If the child gets a reaction that may embarrass them, such as being laughed at or a look of shock and surprise about something they said, it might be a long time before they let you know what’s bothering them again, and you do not want that.
- If Your Child Asks for Facts, Be Honest
Kids are curious and need facts. The less you beat around the bush, the better, because kids also have an active imagination and it’s better to not let it run too wild, but to give a frame to a certain event. If a tragedy has occurred, you can describe what happened in a simple way, informing them about the sequence of events that led to a specific result. It will help them accept something that is difficult to understand and move on to the next question (like, “when are those muffins gonna be ready, mommy?”).
- Have a plan in place
If there is reasonable possibility that your child might face a danger similar to ones that are in the news, by all means have your kids practice coping strategies. For example, it is a good idea that your child memorizes Aunt’s phone number, to teach them how to respond in case of a fire or how to escape a potential abductor. This is an adorable video where you can see how one Mom tries to build a sense of caution into one very reluctant and happy little girl:
“Fear is all about the unknown. By giving them strategies, there are fewer unknowns,” says Dr. Coleman.