How to Speak With Children About Troubling Subjects
Emotional competence begins in children as early as 7 months old. Even within their first month, babies can begin to understand the facial expressions of adults and vocalize when they need something. As they grow into a toddler, children will be able to verbalize their emotions and let others when they're sad, angry, or happy. Oftentimes, adults are able to offer solutions to these feelings. You can install a nightlight if a child is afraid of the dark, or repair a torn teddy bear after an accident - but how do we comfort our children when traumatic events occur in the world? This is especially difficult in a time when news reports and social media are at the forefront of our daily lives.
We're sharing suggestions from parents and experts in an effort to help your family cope in the aftermath of traumatic events.
Why Is It Important to Talk to Children About Alarming News?
Children will experience traumatic news in the world regardless of our efforts to shield them from it. It's a healthy practice to speak with children about current events, (or any difficult subject), and note their responses. Creating a safe space and schedule for children to express their feelings also encourages them to develop coping tactics that they will take with them into adulthood. Studies show that a child is more likely to experience depression and anxiety when their feelings are not addressed and validated.
What to Consider Before Starting The Conversation:
Self Reflect. Take the time to talk through the situation with yourself, and determine if you're ready to have a conversation with your child. If you're unsure of your emotional state, speak with a friend, family member, mental health professional, or a member within your place of worship. If you're still finding it difficult to vocalize your feelings it may help to write down your thoughts or meditate.
Prepare. This is an important step in any situation that brings about feelings of anxiousness and uncertainty. It can help to write scripts that you can use in case you feel stuck during the conversation.
Consider Your Child's Age And History. The way you approach the situation will be different depending on your child's age group. Vocalize in more abstract terminology and use visual comforts for younger children, while speaking more concretely with children ages 7-12. Consider previous interactions and what methods have been successful, or unsuccessful with your child in the past.
Speaking to Children Depending on Their Age Group:
Children in this age group are still experiencing life, and therefore are not able to relate to complex issues, however, they have the ability to identify a scary image, or when something is out of the norm. Child psychologists believe that it's best to shelter this age group from traumatic topics.
- Incorporate dolls and pretend-play in your child's play routine, regardless of their gender. Children are easily drawn to dollhouses since they are smaller representations of the world they live in - which makes them a great tool for expressing feelings.
- Express words of love. Let them know how much they are loved by you, and all of the other people in their lives. Use physical gestures to amplify your words with a smile and open arms.
Children in this age group have the ability to read and write, which can result in triggering information and an abundance of questions. They are at an age where they can separate illusion from reality, and piece together a story with even just a small amount of information. This can sometimes be problematic in the age we live in, where opinions and news are shared throughout many different channels. Above all, they're able to discuss more complex topics and express how it makes them feel.
- Speak in a comforting space that is free of distractions. Encourage them to sit with a favorite stuffed animal, or blanket. Children may prefer to sit with a furry companion for comfort, however, they are likely to detract from the conversation. Turn off cell phones, and ensure you have an open schedule for the remainder of the day. If something does come up, set a time to revisit the conversation and stick to it.
- Vocalize your own feelings and stay calm. Sharing your feelings helps children feel comfortable, and offers examples of how to express their own feelings if they're feeling uncertain. It can be as simple as, "You may have noticed that I've been feeling sad." "This is because of something that happened this week - you may have heard about it." This also reassures children that they are not the source of your sadness.
- Find out what information they already know. Children often receive information on current events from peers in school, social media, or may overhear an adult's conversation. It's best to find out what they're already aware of to start the conversation, and perhaps, correct any misinformation in a gentle manner.
- Encourage them to ask questions and listen intently. Provide simple answers without over-explaining and sharing details that might scare them. Remember, it's okay if you don't have all the answers. When anyone is sad or stressed, being a listener is the first step to showing your support and concern, even if you don't have any concrete advice, or information to share in the moment.
- Consider other outlets for expression and conversation. Children may be more comfortable writing about how they feel, drawing a picture, or acting it out with their toys. Other times, children may be more receptive to another family member, or mental health professional.
- Talk about what adults are doing to help those affected, and what your family can do to help, too. Talk about organizations you can donate, or places where you can volunteer your time.
- Reassert your support, and create a schedule to talk routinely if necessary. "It's okay that you're feeling this way, and I'm always here if you need to talk, or have more questions." It's essential to remind children that their feelings are valid, and are part of being human. If we don't, they may feel that they're at fault when their feelings surface.
- Thank them for sharing and trusting in you. It's not always easy for children, or anyone to share their feelings with another person, regardless of their relation to the person. Acknowledge their bravery, and offer a hug and/or words of love.
- Be aware of any changes in your child. Note a change in sleep habits, behavior, mood, appetite, or interests. Excessive sadness or stress can also result in headaches and stomach aches. Report any changes to healthcare professionals for advice and treatment.
Below are helpful resources that can help you and your family cope with traumatic events. We encourage you to continue self-educating through trusted sources and speak directly to a medical professional and/or child expert to suit the specific needs of your family. Below are a few of the sources we looked to when compiling this information:
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Age Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event
- Kids Health: How to Talk to Your Child About The News
- Substance Abuse & Mental Help Services: Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers
- Mr. Rogers: Helping Children Deal with Tragic Events in the News
- Sesame Street: A Child’s Perspective of a Traumatic Experience
- Sesame Street: Traumatic Experiences in Communities
- Mental Health Foundation: Talking to Your Children About Scary World News
- UNICEF: How to Talk to Your Children About Conflict And War
- National Association of School Psychologists: Talking to Children About Violence