How Do I Talk to My Kids About This?
It would be impossible not to know what is going on in the world right now, at any age. Many adults are glued to their news feeds as information is constantly changing, everyday gatherings are being cancelled or postponed, community spaces are closed, and some grocery stores look like something out of a bad zombie movie.
And while we’re looking for answers, our kids are looking to us for those same answers. So, what do we tell them? And how?
Regardless of the topic, here are a couple of key things to remember when we have to tell our kids difficult or unsettling news.
Tell the truth
It’s not uncommon for parents to either tell semi-truths, ‘sugar coat’ bad news, or downright lie in order to spare their kids’ feelings. This is always done out of love and caring, and sometimes to avoid our own pain of witnessing our children be upset. You don’t have to be all doom and gloom, and it’s important to display hope and your intention to confront the problem.
But the reality is a key component to building resiliency in our kids is giving them a sense of personal agency and responsibility. When we lie, or keep things from our kids, they may learn we don’t trust them, think they’re not smart enough to understand, or think they’re not responsible enough or emotionally capable to handle the information.
Over time these messages have a much more negative impact on our kids and outweigh any benefit from sparing them from feeling unsettled, anxious, or scared. How do you learn how to cope with these strong feelings? By experiencing them and being supported through it. How do you know when you’ve given them enough detail? Tell them the basics. If they ask for more detail, then you haven’t given them enough. And always finish with what you’re doing or plan to do about the problem.
Accommodate the information for their age
A preschooler, an 8-year-old, and pre-teens and adolescents all have different capacities for understanding, and using their language is the best way to increase their understanding. Younger kids do well by using stories or pictures as a way of explaining, while older kids will want to know how it directly affects them, and what you think and feel as well.
The older the child, the more ‘accurate’ the language should be. This is especially important considering older kids will be getting this information from multiple sources. The more they see that you are providing factual rather than watered down language, the more they’re likely to listen to you as their main source.
For younger children ask them if they understand and let them know its ok if they don’t and you’ll try to explain it another way. For older kids, and especially teens, ask them what they think about what you’ve told them. Get their perspective to see how they’re incorporating the information into what they already know.
Manage your emotions
You are not neutral, and you shouldn’t be, when you are dealing with difficult circumstances. As adults we ourselves are often anxious, unsettled, or scared. But this presents a perfect opportunity to model how to cope with these feelings. By being honest that we feel anxious or scared but are coping by talking about it, asking for help or comfort from our partners and friends, and remembering to think of solutions instead of just the problem, we show them how to deal with strong emotions.
An important skill is learning to regulate our emotions, not simply suppress them. This means being able to understand how we are ‘experiencing’ our emotions, and how they are affecting us physiologically, cognitively, and emotionally.
Be aware of how you are sensing your strong feelings, and work at managing your breathing, heart rate, and engage in some simple relaxation techniques when needed. How is your thinking affected? Are you easily distracted, or perseverating on only the negative aspects? Or can you remain focused, and open to multiple perspectives and ideas? Can you hear others’ perspectives and ideas? And how are you expressing yourself? Can you manage your tone, volume, and give a message that while things may be difficult, you’re able to still carry on?
It’s important to make sure we have these skills in place before role modelling this for our kids. Take the time to practice with your own supports before talking with your kids. Showing emotions is not just ok, its important. But becoming dysregulated can be counterproductive.
Validate their emotions
Another common response to our kids’ getting upset is telling them not to be sad or mad, or not to cry or be worried. But these are very real feelings and may be entirely appropriate given the situation.
When they express sadness, anxiety, or frustration, let them know that you understand why they feel that way. It makes sense. AND, here’s what we can do about that. By starting with validation, you are supporting their experience of the event or circumstances, which is an initial message of seeing them as capable. They are having an appropriate reaction, and they can get through this.
Strong feelings are often a signal that we need to pay attention, think clearly, and act. Its far more supportive to hear that what you are feeling is ‘normal’, and that it will not consume you but instead possibly help you identify what you should do to promote change or keep yourself safe. Teach your kids to listen to their inner voice, not reject it. And teach them how to reach out for support when needed to help identify what they’re felling, gain some control over their feelings, think more clearly, and express to others what they need.
There is certainly nothing wrong with cuddling our kids; at any age if they’ll let you. But it’s important to not deny them the opportunity to learn how to cope, even when what we are asking them to cope with is far beyond their control. They will be confronted with circumstances beyond their control over and over. So, think about preparing them to be able to navigate on their own should they need to. But for now, let’s talk with them.