Talking to Your Child About Difficult Situations

Talking to Your Child About Difficult Situations

By: Lisa Maddox, MA, RMHCI

Kids are not afraid to ask difficult questions.  Who could blame them? There are a lot of difficult questions to be asked these days! Our children are experiencing the same world events that we are, they just don’t have the framework to understand them. So, what do you do as a parent?

When they come to you with questions, it is important to keep communication open and allow them to ask questions openly.  As our children grow and develop, we want them to continue to feel comfortable coming to us with their concerns. Giving them space to ask questions on their own will encourage future openness. One way to do this is to take their questions seriously and give them your full attention when responding. Their questions may be simple to you, but do not lose sight of the importance they may have for your child. Show that you’re interested!

Remember their age level and respond according to what they have the capacity to understand. As parents, we want to be open and honest with our children, but there is a level of honesty that is appropriate at each age level.  You do not want to cause undue stress or additional harm by revealing too much or too little during your conversation with your children. Use the following guidelines to keep age in mind:

2-6 Years Old
Young children live in a very concrete world and have trouble breaking down complex and difficult topics.  At this age, they are the center of their world, and they focus on how things affect them.  They are good at reading your emotional state and worry that they did something to upset you.

  • Reassure them with your words and gestures.  Let them know that it is alright to have the feelings that they are having.  Feel free to share that you are upset also, but these feelings were not caused by them.
  • Find out what they know.  Ask them what they think happened.  You can use what they know to help clarify and provide comfort without the need for many additional details.
  • Keep news at bay.  If the event happened far away, use the distance to reassure kids.  If the event is local, share a few age-appropriate tips for staying safe.
  • Use terms they are familiar with.  Break down issues into basic terms without a lot of specifics.  Such as, “There was a man with a gun that was trying to hurt people.”  Try to recall a recent situation that you can relate from their lives.  Young children understand basic emotions, not mental illness.  Use basic terms for emotions and feelings, such as mad, sad, afraid, happy or surprised.  Avoid vernacular expressions or slang such as “that man was off his rocker.”
  • Let them know that someone is in charge and stress that the family is safe.This lets them know that they do not have to “fix” the problem and that an adult is handling it.  For example, “Mom and Dad will make sure our family is safe” or “the police are working to catch the bad guy.”
  • Be together.  Distraction and physical comfort can go a long way.  Do not belittle their fears but at the same time snuggling up together on the couch and watching something or doing something fun can be very effective.

7-12 Years Old
At this age children are starting to use media more independently.  They are starting to gain abstract-thinking skills, more real-world experience and starting to express themselves.  They are at the very beginning stages of this skill, and their brains are still developing the ability to wrestle with difficult topics and understand different perspectives.

  • Wait for the right time.  At this age, your kids are still likely to come to you.  You can feel them out and see if they want to discuss the issue.  If your child does not bring it up, do not feel like you need to.
  • Be sensitive to their maturity and temperament.  At this age, many kids can handle a discussion on tough topics but if your child tends to be more sensitive keep them away from graphic images and stories.  Check in with your child by telling them how you feel and then asking how they feel.
  • Find out what they know.  Talk about the news coverage but it may need to be filtered.  Answer questions simply and directly.  Do not over explain, you may unintentionally make it worse.
  • Create a safe space for discussion.  Let them know that these topics are hard to discuss, even for adults.  Reassure them, let them know that you will not be angry with them, and they can feel free to ask you anything they want.  Ask them open-ended questions to encourage critical thinking.
  • Be optimistic.  Try to find something positive about the situation that can help your child focus.  Focusing on how others helped or how you can help can change the perspective for your child.

Teens
At this age, kids are starting to rely on their friends and media for information more than their parents.  At this point they are using media independently and, in some cases, creating their own content on social media.  Teens often think they know everything and do not always pay attention to the validity of the source of their information.

  • Check in.  At this point, your teen will have probably heard the information from another source besides you.  Checking in with them allows them to share with you what they know but you can also gauge how they are developing when it comes to their views on politics, justice and morality.  Share your values with them, let them know where you stand and explain why you hold that value.
  • Let teens express themselves.   Listen to their take.  Offer your own insight into the mix but be careful not to dismiss theirs.  Ask open-ended questions that support their ideas.  Try to get them to consider the complexities within difficult topics.
  • Admit if you do not know something.  Letting them know you don’t have all the answers, but you can look together to find the answer to their questions, shows them that it is alright to not know.  This will also give you the opportunity to show how you can find the answer.  If you need it, take a moment to think of your answer before speaking to them.
  • Discuss news sources.  Talk to your teen about where they get their information.  Prompt them to consider different sources and how or why they might be biased on that topic.
  •  Possible solutions.  Ask them what they might do in a difficult situation?  What might be a possible solution?  For example: “If you were caught in a demonstration that turned violent and you saw people being mistreated, what would you do?”
  • Reassure them. 

Remember that these are just guidelines and at the end of the day, you know your child better than anyone else.  As you are talking to them, pay attention to their reactions, their follow up questions, and make sure you are helping with your clarifications.  Our kids will search for answers to their questions, and it is important that you set up an environment where they can feel comfortable coming to you instead of their friends or the internet alone.  In order to keep your children coming to you for answers, you need to help them to feel heard and understood.

For more information, we recommend reading Get Closer, Not Louder and 7 Strategies for Teaching Resilience. If you need further support, please contact our team to schedule an appointment.

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