We live in a time of political turmoil, disease, and natural disasters. At home, we may be enduring trials such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or mental illness. These difficult subjects are hard enough to talk about with other adults. Attempting to explain these events to children can be a daunting task. So, how are our kids feeling about and learning about the difficult things around them?
Explaining difficult subjects to young children can present several issues. Here are some ideas regarding concerns you might have about explaining difficult subjects to young children.
When is the best time to bring up the subject? How do you bring it up naturally?
Make sure you're in an environment that is especially safe and familiar to the child. For example, the comfort of your own home. It is important that the child can focus on the conversation, so starting the conversation just after arriving at a familiar playground may be a safe place, but it is likely not the ideal time. Ensuring that the timing and place of the conversation is free from distractions and secure will help reduce any initial stress before the conversation, as well as allow them to be more open to beginning the conversation.
How much information should I give them? What if they ask questions I don't know how to answer?
As with all difficult discussions that arise, it is critical to provide accurate, necessary, age-appropriate information. If you notice discomfort being felt by you or your child, try focusing on processing only the information you have already explained before adding more information. As in all interactions with your child, try to be honest about the answers you have and the ones that you simply do not know. Because difficult subjects bring up feelings of uncertainty, it is good for your child to see that adults experience uncertainty much like children and know that it is okay to not understand everything.
How can I prepare them for the new, difficult emotions they might experience as a result of this news? What if I start to show emotion?
Because your child may feel a sense of discomfort or sudden uncertainty, it is important to remind your child about the things that this information cannot change. For instance, it might not change much about their daily routines, their general safety, or their loved ones. This can be very comforting for a child to hear from a loving caregiver.
If you are able to prepare for this discussion, spend some time rehearsing in front of a mirror the things you wish to express to your child. You will notice what emotions your mannerisms suggest you are feeling. Remember that it is not a parent's job to block any true emotion from their children. However, when we show healthy emotional expression to our children, we can follow it up with healthy emotional management or coping mechanisms that they can then mirror in their own emotional regulation. Ensure that your child has healthy ways to deal with negative emotions when they arise. Have some questions or ideas ready to help them process through difficult information, thoughts, and feelings during the conversation. And, of course, plan to check in with them after the initial conversation to see how they are feeling about it later.