“I’m gonna tell them to be kind and make good choices,” my 2-year-old said as he noticed the chaos on the television screen. My husband and I just looked at each other. We were watching the news and didn’t think our little ones were paying any attention while they played. Oops.
In that moment, I realized that my kids are considerably more aware of their surroundings than I had previously thought. With so much happening in the world — natural disasters, war, bullying, community violence, and divorce — whether down the street or across the globe, it’s important that we have a plan to discuss more challenging topics with our children. Indeed, sometimes it feels impossible to imagine discussing some of this stuff with our kids, but as parents, it’s our job to initiate conversation. I know that I’d rather my kids hear of tragedy from me and work through their feelings at home in their safe space, rather than from a friend or a random television screen in an airport.
A key part of self-regulation is to be able to process negative feelings. When thinking about how to approach the conversation, it’s important to try to find a delicate balance between the truth and too much information. What do they need to know? How can I share the facts without scaring them? Are they ready for this?
Here are some tips for mindfully setting the stage for having tough conversations with your children:
- Make sure you’re in a comfortable setting. Where in your house, or your daily life, will the conversation feel most safe for you and your children? Be sure to remove distractions so you can be focused and productive. Only include people in the conversation that need to be there.
- Plan what you’re going to say. One of the key factors in a successful conversation is that you feel comfortable in initiating it. Have a plan in your head about how much information you’ll divulge, the type of vocabulary you’ll use to describe the situation, and what you think needs to be left out of the story. Begin by asking them what they know and allow that to guide the rest of the conversation. If your child is under the age of 5, it’s best to keep it simple and avoid discussion of anything horrific. Big ideas like kindness, empathy, and love are perfect for this age.
- Choose picture books to help you with talking points. Many authors are tackling tough issues in their picture books, and this is a perfect way to support yourself, your child, and the conversation. Check out sites like Raising Luminaries: Books for Littles to find titles that help you explain subjects that are difficult to navigate.
- Make sure you have enough time for the conversation. It’s best not to start a serious conversation while you’re running from the grocery store to baseball practice. Tough conversations warrant more time and space than that. Allow room for feelings and questions, as well as time to decompress afterwards.
- Emphasize that you are a safe space for your child. Assure your child that they can come to you to talk more about this topic. Let them know that they can ask questions, talk about their feelings, or just come and get some hugs. Be sure to follow through and be patient with them. Some topics are big and overwhelming, so your kids may need a little time to understand.
- Stay positive. Remind your child about the power and importance of being a good person. Depending on the topic of your tough conversation, there are different points to drive home. If it’s a conversation about community violence, talk about how they can be good people and point out the good people in their everyday lives. If it’s a conversation about a natural disaster or other catastrophe, reinforce that your child and their family are safe and that you’ll continue to work hard to stay safe.
- Provide your child with tools to process and accept big feelings. Give your child a safe area, like a fort, that serves as a place for reflection. Share a notebook with your child in which you can either write or draw pictures back and forth. Giving them the tools they need to process thoughts and feelings, all while keeping the lines of communication open, will support your child as they work through overwhelming topics.
- Discuss possible steps they can take to move forward. Depending on the topic, children may be personally affected and feel called to help. Or they may even be in a situation where they have to stand up for themselves. Talk about the possible ways they can move forward, whether it is donating supplies, standing up for themselves, or speaking to a counselor. Invite your child to role-play. Share suggestions for what they could say and do, and allow them to practice. This forward-thinking will help your child feel more prepared to go back into the world and face overwhelming topics and situations.
We can foster resilience in our children by creating a home where they feel safe to talk to us about anything.
By Caitlin Hardeman, former third through sixth grade teacher specializing in English Language Arts.