Dialogue and Support of Your Children
Unfortunately, the past year has been rife with crises, civil unrest, constant change and uncertainty, and a growing sense of unease amongst most of the population. Such an environment can be overwhelming enough to make sense of, navigate, and manage as an individual; however,
the difficulties seem to increase exponentially as a parent. While parenting is never ‘easy,’ parenting through crises can be downright exhausting. As a parent, you are forced to grapple with how much to share with your children, how to answer questions in a way that is both developmentally appropriate and matches your family’s value system, and how to navigate and support your child(ren) as they go through many of the same feelings that you yourself are also trying to manage.
It is our hope that this document helps give each of you some useful tips and strategies for talking with and supporting your child in these moments - and maybe frees up some time from scouring the internet for ideas when you are feeling at a loss (if you are anything like me)!
But before that, just a reminder: Good enough parenting is good enough. You do not have to be perfect in all things or in all ways. It is okay to stumble. It is okay to struggle. It is okay to not know what to say or what to do in any given moment.
Tip 1: Monitor and manage your own emotions.
This is where the oxygen mask example is often given. You cannot provide effective support if you yourself because are emotionally overwhelmed or depleted. This doesn’t make you a bad parent; it makes you human. If you are feeling overwhelmed or depleted, take the time necessary to care for yourself and your emotional reactions before attempting to discuss with your child. This is important for many children, especially younger ones, parents or caretakers are akin to a barometer. Children may take cues regarding their relative safety and security from you; if you seem stressed or at unease by news, they assume the worst. In short, take care of you: Turn off the news, take a break, do something that lifts your spirits.
Tip 2: Think about the message you want to share
If you are aware of the crisis or concern before your child broaches it, this step is a bit easier. If your child brings something up you didn’t expect, it’s okay to say something like, “Thank you so much for sharing your worry about this. I have to be honest; I haven’t had time to think about this or really process it, so let me take a little time to wrap my head around it/learn a little bit more/think about it, and then I want to sit down to discuss if further with you at [this specific time].” Consider your family values, your child(ren)’s temperament(s), and previous conversations you may have had. It’s okay to practice the conversation in your head or with your partner or another adult. Difficult dialogues do not have to occur spur of the moment, and honestly, they tend to go better with your child if you are prepared.
Tip 3: Make time to talk.
Not every child will directly ask their parent(s) to have a difficult conversation with them. They may hover around you or make side remarks to test the waters to find out if you are open to the conversation. Others, particularly younger children, may ask questions about something they saw or heard on tv, the radio, or social media. You know your child and their approaches. If they seem to be hinting at wanting to have the conversation, go ahead and set aside time to have the conversation. (Caveat: If their teachers discussed it in school, you know they talked with peers about it, or you know they overheard you talking about it, it is probably best to set aside time and have a conversation about the situation or crisis regardless of whether your child seems to want to or not. This allows you to couch the discussion in your family’s value system and shows care and concern by providing space and time, even if your child chooses not to utilize it. It also lets them know you are willing to have a conversation about the situation and their reaction if/when your child is ready.) Please note:
- It is best to do this when you have enough time to talk and process - not right before bed or before your child heads off to sports practice.
- Often, having the conversation while engaging in a shared activity can be more comfortable for both your child(ren) and yourself. Examples include while making dinner, baking, driving, coloring, taking a walk, etc. Taking away the face to face/eye contact component and a low level of distraction helps to lessen some of the emotional reactiveness common in difficult discussions.
Tip 4: Communicate in a way the works for your child(ren)
Not all children are able to have a sit down discussion of difficult topics. This is true both in terms of age and temperament. Younger children are likely to respond better to concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, imaginative play) and brief, basic facts in response to their questions or concerns. While older children and teens are able to discuss in more depth and responses to their questions are likely to require additional details, they still may feel uncomfortable with a discussion format. Often times allowing older children or teens to journal their thoughts, feelings, and questions and communicating through writing can allow for a more meaningful interaction.
They may also benefit from being able to express themselves through not only writing, but visual art or music as well. It is quite possible that if you are a parent to multiple children, you will be communicating in multiple ways.
Tip 5: Consider some of these strategies for the discussion
- Start the conversation by finding out what they know - something like, “You may have heard about XYZ at school or by listening to me talk. I am wondering what you have heard and whether you have any questions?” Then just listen, listen, and listen some more. Open ended questions are best here, as is not assuming you know what your child is thinking or feeling.
- Share your feelings with your child(ren) in a developmentally appropriate manner. With younger kids, something like, “I felt really sad when I heard about XYZ;” with older children and teens, you could share more specifics. This is a great opportunity for you to model identifying how you are feeling, expressing it appropriately, and coping with it. Following the earlier example of sadness, “I felt really sad when I heard about XYZ. I felt a heavy feeling in my chest and tears in my eyes, and I took a few minutes to walk outside to calm down.” With older children or teens, you could express feelings of anger, disappointment, or numbness; how you knew you were feeling those things, and what you chose to do to manage them. Depending on your child, you could even express thoughts of negative coping strategies, such as “I felt so frustrated when I heard about XYZ that I wanted to throw something at the TV, but I knew that wouldn’t change anything, so I went for a run instead to get that energy out - and then talked to someone I trusted about how I was feeling and what I was thinking.”
- Tell the truth. Again,think about what’s developmentally appropriate in terms of the number of details you share. It is okay to say, “I don’t know” if you don’t know. For example, if your child(ren) ask(s), “Why would they do that?,” It’s completely okay to say “I don’t know.” You don’t have to rationalize the behaviors of others in this discussion. You aren’t responsible for making sense of a situation that feels senseless. More than reason, your child needs reassurance. There is also no need to solve the situation or wrap it up into a nice package during this discussion. If it is a difficult dialogue, it is like a situation that is big and messy and likely to come up in multiple discussions moving forward. You don’t fix difficult situations in a single discussion; but you can create a family dynamic that faces these difficulties together and supports one another in navigating them.
Tip 6: Try to maintain a healthy family environment
When the world feels like it is falling down around us, family can be a safe escape from things. Consider your family routine. Has it changed in the aftermath of this crisis or situation? Is there a way to get meals, sleep, and daily activities back on track? Is your family in need of a reset or fun escape? Then maybe it’s time for a game night, special meal, dessert for dinner, movie night, etc. If a member of your family is struggling, encourage a break. A night without homework or a missed day of school, work, or practice to reset and recharge may be necessary in the face of a crisis situation. If you are concerned about a member of your family, consider seeking support through therapy, religious leaders, extended family, etc.
Check out this link for additional resources related to soothing, managing, and coping with your own emotional reactions. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1ktRonxSPRCmeGbS65883VcqwZXi44w4h8k__gtJrUO8/edit?usp=sharing
And this link for additional suggestions and examples broken down by developmental stage/age. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-difficult-subjects
Ashley Poklar, Ph.D.
The Behavioral Wellness Group