Life happens. When it does, it’s the job of parents and teachers and other adult caretakers to explain it all in a helpful way that preserves a child’s positive outlook towards life and optimism about the future. So many of the problems children experience after a difficult event are problems that arise from improper explanations and interpretations of the event, or a failure to talk about the situation at all.
How to talk to kids about difficult experiences
1. Repetition is often needed, and constant reassurances are a coping mechanism
When a child is struggling to cope with an event, it’s quite common for them to ask you the same questions over and over again. They do this not to annoy you, but because they need continual reassurance that things will be OK. They may simply need to hear your answer 12 times a day. In the same way that a child might need repetition before mastering a new math concept, kids who are struggling to deal with turmoil or tragedy may require repeated reassurances or explanations before they can effectively process things on their own. Be patient with this, and provide answers to their questions as many times as they need to hear them. Be every bit as elaborate the tenth time as you are the first. If it seems as though your comforting is missing the mark of their concerns, then try different angles or have another discussion with them about what things bother them the most. Remember that this is a process, and it takes time for children to come to grips with changes in their lives.
2. Find out their frame of mind prior to talking to them
Always start off your discussions by asking questions about what they already know and what they’re concerned about. A child’s fears and concerns are going to vary depending on their understanding of the subject. Therefore their concerns are likely to differ quite a bit from your own. Children also tend to pick up a lot of bad information, and thus may be troubled by beliefs that aren’t the least bit true. So before you get too deep into discussions, start by having them be the teacher and explain to you everything they know about the subject in question:
- What do you know about earthquakes?
- What do you think caused all that shaking?
- Why do you think this happened?
- What do you think so and so was thinking?
- Tell me everything you know about (fill in the blank)
3. Honesty is the best policy
Often times when tragedy strikes, the tendency is to want to shield children from the situation or hide things from them. Yet as behavioral neuroscientist Sergio M. Pellis observes, this protectionist attitude “simply defrays those costs to later.” (Wenner, 2009) It can also make a child’s fears and anxieties worse, because whether it be from sensing something in your own emotions or hearing about a community tragedy from kids at school, children always find out that something is amiss. In the absence of open and honest communication, the ideas kids form are almost always worse than if parents had just been forthright with them from the beginning.
Parents should always strive to be as open and honest with children as possible. Nothing about life is inappropriate for kids to know about.
From abuse to death to violence, there is nothing gained by trying to hide the realities of life, even the harsher ones we would prefer didn’t exist.
There are, however, age differences in comprehension, as well as varying degrees of exposure. Honesty and truthfulness are different from full exposure. It’s not helpful to give a small child every gory detail of a violent act or expose them to stimulus that would cause them nightmares or other disturbances. There is plenty of reason to shield children from the full brunt of a difficult situation. The key is to provide lots of comforting while somehow finding the right words to explain things in a truthful, non-deceptive way.
4. Use concise language
Adults often create a lot of confusion for kids when talking about difficult or uncomfortable events, because they invent a different set of terminology to refer to these unpleasantries. For example, a statement such as “there was a shooting at a school today, we lost 26 people” is ripe for confusion. The child may well think, “if they’re lost, then let’s go find them!” Don’t engage in such word ploys. You need to tell kids that someone died, not that they were lost or went to visit Jesus. You shouldn’t use the word “hurt” if you know they were actually killed. If someone was shot, you need to say they were shot, not that they were “capped” or that “there was an accident.” When you try to use creative language to dance around the horror of what really happened, it’s likely to lead to confusion.