How to talk to your kids when the world feels like a scary place
With many kids asking questions about COVID-19 and the assault on the Capitol, Child Psychologist, Professor & Author, Dr. Abigail Gewirtz, provides a roadmap for parents wondering how to best help their children navigate stressful world events and shares the tools needed to address tough conversations with their children.
It doesn’t matter if you’re five or fifteen, major events such as COVID-19, climate change and even school lockdown drills can feel really scary.
Recently, many parents watched the assault on our nation’s Capitol with shock and horror. As difficult as it is for any of us to come to terms with the enormity and horror of it all, where on earth do we start with our kids?
Whether or not we want to recognize it, our kids are watching us. They are detectives of our emotions; they know when something stresses us – and what stresses us, stresses them, too. So how do we talk with our children about what happened?
First, take a few minutes to reflect on how you felt when you heard about what happened and its aftermath.
If thinking about these events caused you to feel worry, fear, or anger, where did you feel these emotions in your body? And how did you regulate them? Many of us do so on autopilot – we might sigh loudly, take some deep breaths, go for a walk, or take a bath. But paying attention to what we are feeling and how we calm ourselves down is important because our kids watch and learn about how to regulate their own emotions from what they see.
How to talk to your kids when the world feels like a scary place
Your baby won’t understand anything except your worry and stress. Stress preoccupies us, stopping us from being present with our kids. So try to be attentive to your baby, and use words and touch to reassure them. Pay attention to their needs without being intrusive (follow their lead) and respond to their bids for attention.
Toddlers & Preschoolers
Your toddler or preschooler is actively exploring the world, and with pandemic winter here and not much social interaction, they may be jumping off the walls! Stress can exacerbate that, making us grouchy and transforming the stress of what’s happening outside our four walls into our homes.
Make sure the TV is off and phones are out of the way of curious fingers. If there are big siblings around the home or others from whom your child might hear about the events at the Capitol, make sure you are responsive to their questions. Talk in simple language but most of all, listen. In response to a question about what happened, ask “what did you hear?” If your young child asks, “Why did this happen?” make sure you can answer in a way that is simple, clear, and consistent with your values. Details aren’t usually necessary, especially if they are graphic or confusing to a young child. You might use parallels that your child will understand.
For example, “Remember when you got mad because we had to leave your friend’s house, and you broke his toy? Well, some people were angry because they didn’t get what they wanted and so they did some things they should not have done.” Reassure your child that it is grownups’ jobs to keep kids safe and they/you do it pretty well!
Your elementary-aged child is ‘out’ in the world. Whether they’re physically at school, going online, or hybrid, your child is often more aware of outside happenings than you might think. It’s around this age that anxiety naturally peaks – not surprising given that 9-10 year olds are old enough to know quite a bit about what is happening in the outside world but still too young to have much control over their everyday lives.
Your school-aged child’s worries might not be immediately apparent to you, unless they come into your room every night, or shares their fears with you. Having a daily check in over dinner each night allows all the family to share how everybody is feeling, what’s on your minds, and to have what I call “essential conversations”. These conversations, about big events outside the family – like what happened at the Capitol – should focus first on feelings about what happened.
For example, if your child comes to you and asks “Mom, I heard there could be violence in our state capitol during inauguration, is that true?” your immediate instinct (heart beating fast and a sinking feeling; you were hoping your child wouldn’t hear about what happened) might be to say, “No, honey, everything is going to be fine. Don’t worry about that.” The problem, of course is that first, you can’t be sure of that, and second, kids do worry. Telling them not to worry just sends the message that their worries are not important, or not to be trusted.
Instead, take a deep breath – or whatever helps you calm down – and focus on their feelings. You might say: “Your eyes look a bit wet. How are you feeling?” If your child isn’t able to label their feelings, help them out. “Are you feeling worried or sad?” Follow that up by validating their feeling. “I would be worried too, if I was your age and was hearing all this scary news”.
You might share a story from your own childhood, when something happened that really worried you. Next, listen to them. Ask them what they have heard, and from whom. Listen actively. You’ll want to interrupt to reassure them but wait – let them finish what they have to say. And then, rather than telling them not to worry, or giving them advice, engage in a problem-solving process with them.
For example, you might say: “I hear that you are worried and scared. Let’s figure out some ways to help you feel less anxious.” Problem-solving is all about brainstorming: instead of giving advice, you are teaching your child that she has the tools to solve their own problems with your scaffolding. Problem-solving can be used for more than helping your child feel less anxious, though. Use it also to help your child engage with a concrete issue if they show interest. The next example illustrates this.
Your teen probably knows more than you do about what happened at the Capitol, if they’re online and engaged in current events. Even if they’re sharing their opinions or asking you questions, start by identifying and validating their feelings: “Your brow is furrowed– looks like you might be worried, or angry. How are you feeling?”
Then let them share what they’re feeling and thinking. Teens are on social media a lot, which offers you an opportunity to teach them to check the facts, especially if what they’re reading is stirring up big emotions. They might say “I am so confused about what happened. I don’t even believe that people could do this. How could this happen? And I feel helpless to do anything about it. What can we do?”
In your problem-solving discussion, you might frame the goal as, “Let’s talk together to understand how this might have happened, and what you might be able to do to learn more about the issues and feel less helpless.” Ask your child for ideas about checking the facts and about engaging in our democracy (do they want to volunteer in a political or social cause of their choice? How about opportunities to share opinions and listen to others?)
Engaging concretely and constructively helps us all – children and grownups – feel less helpless, more empowered, and truly a part of a democracy.
About Dr. Abigail Gewirtz
Dr. Abigail Gewirtz is a child psychologist, professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development and author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place. Through her work and writing, Dr. Abigail Gewirtz provides a roadmap for parents wondering how to best help their children navigate stressful world events, and equips them with the tools to address tough conversations with their children, from identifying feelings associated with a stressful situation to regulating “big” negative emotions. For more information, visit Dr. Abigail Gewirtz at abigailgewirtz.com
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