It’s hard to turn on the news today without having to answer tough questions from your children. Whether it’s calming fears about a global pandemic or articulating our complex history from slavery to the modern-day protests. Explaining things in a way that makes sense to young minds is not easy and requires some homework depending on the child’s age.
Many of the staff at OOLA have children, and as we have been struggling with these tough conversations, we know our readers have too. The following is a research-based approach to educate the next generation on tough issues and serve as a dialogue tool to reassure kids and make them feel heard.
The Experts Weigh In
From the coronavirus to topics like bullying and sexuality, the Child Mind Institute has helpful answers on how best to talk to your children in ways they will understand and assure them. The Child Mind Institute is a nonprofit that is “dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders.” I found their resources while doing my own research months ago when the pandemic was raging. I used talking points from Rachel Ehmke outlined in her article, Talking to Kids About The Coronavirus Crisis, with my children, and have since used them again to help navigate issues like racism and divorce.
Welcome their questions, not matter how silly.
With so much uncertainty in the world today, kids’ questions are bound to span a wide range. Going from the very serious (“Am I going to die, or is nana?”) to the mundane (“Will I ever get to go to the zoo again?”) all in the same week. Encourage these questions, and make sure they feel heard. Never dismiss them as silly or ridiculous. Seeing how their imagination works is one of the joys of parenthood.
Don’t avoid questions you can’t answer.
It might feel counterproductive to say, “I don’t know.” But Ehmke explains, “teaching children how to tolerate uncertainty is key to reducing anxiety and helping them build resilience.” It’s OK to not have all the answers, and showing your children vulnerability shouldn’t be seen as weakness. Remember, no one is an expert on everything! It’s been hard to answer a lot of questions that revolve around race in this country in recent weeks. Use this uncertainty as an opportunity to educate yourself and your children. For many, a large portion of black history wasn’t taught in school, allowing you to learn alongside your children.
Set the tone.
These conversations are an opportunity to not just relay information, but to set the emotional tone. “You take on the news, and you’re the person who filters the news to your kid,” explains Janine Domingues, Ph.D., a child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
Take the news and translate it to their level. It’s tempting to over-explain based on your expectations for understanding, but volunteering too much information is only overwhelming and can lead to confusion. Instead, try to answer your child’s questions honestly and clearly. It’s OK if you can’t answer everything; being available to your child is what matters.
Take your cues from your child.
Reverse the conversation, have your child explain what they’ve heard about the coronavirus, and how they feel. You might hear some outrageous assumptions from them, so resist the urge to laugh. Your goal is to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies. It’s not just ‘there is a monster under my bed’ anymore. You don’t want unsquashed childhood fears to morph into real-life prejudice.
Deal with your own anxiety.
“When you’re feeling most anxious or panicked, that isn’t the time to talk to your kids about what’s happening with the coronavirus,” warns Dr. Domingues. If you’ve just learned troubling news that’s upsetting, fight the urge to express your feeling in front of them. Take some time to calm down before trying to have a conversation or answer your child’s questions.
Be reassuring and redirect.
Ultimately, your job is to keep your kids safe, both mentally and physically. Reassuring them while assuming the brunt of worry is what we signed up for as parents. Focus on positives and what you’re doing to stay safe. Kids feel empowered when they can take action or contribute to a solution. Remind kids that washing their hands or wearing a mask is helping everyone by stopping the spread of the virus. Redirect kids to focus on what they are getting to do, like, camping in the backyard, being around mom and dad more, watching more TV, instead of the fact they can’t see grandma for a while.
Open dialogue with our kids is essential in times of crisis and equally important as they grow into young adults. The coronavirus is scary, but bigger conversations are on the horizon, like sexuality, depression, bullying, and the list goes on. “Let them know that the lines of communication are going to be open,” says Dr. Domingues. “You can say, ‘Even though we don’t have the answers to everything right now, know that once we know more, mom or dad will let you know, too.'”