Clinical Editor: Sara Huberman Carbone, MD
As parents, we’ll do anything to protect our kids from the harsh realities of the world. We’ll turn off movies that are too scary, cover our children’s eyes during mature or gory scenes, and discuss serious topics in whispers or after bedtime. But as much as we would like to shield our kids from anything scary or anxiety-provoking happening in the world, whether it’s a global pandemic or war, we can’t always do so. Maybe they’ve overheard something in the news or learned about a current event at school, or maybe they’ve just picked up on a different feeling at home. Whatever the case, it’s important to start a conversation with your child to help them better understand these events and process their own emotions. So, how do we talk to our kids about these scary or stressful situations without inducing more fear or anxiety? Here's what you need to know:
1. Start with yourself
Before we talk to our kids about these events, it’s important to get a handle on our own emotions. Kids need reassurances that they are safe and heard and it’s difficult to provide those if you’re caught up in your own anxiety and fear. Children and young adults look to their parents as an example, so if you’re exhibiting high stress, they might believe there is reason to be worried or anxious. Though it may be difficult to maintain a positive, calm attitude if you’re nervous, scared, or uncertain yourself, doing so can help your child feel safe and at ease. Practice some self-care, talk with friends, or seek support from a professional. Just like in an aircraft emergency, it is essential to put on your own oxygen mask first.
2. Ask questions
Next, go on an information seeking mission. In order to have a productive conversation with your child and be able to address all of their concerns and needs, you’ll need to understand how much they know about the situation already and how they’re feeling about it. Depending on the age of your child, you may just be able to ask them directly: “What do you think about …?” Give them your attention and the time to express themselves fully. Your child may not be aware that they are struggling themselves or know how to discuss their feelings, so this may mean asking a few different times or continuing to check in with them regularly. With teenagers especially, you may need to raise the conversation more than once. Create opportunities for your teen to express their thoughts and anxieties, without pressuring them to talk. For younger kids who may not be able to verbally express their feelings, ask their caregivers if they have noticed any changes in the child’s mood or behavior. Don’t assume that young kids don’t have enough awareness of these events to be scared. Children pick up on the stress of the adults around them, even if they can’t or don’t verbalize it.
3. Talk it out
Once you have determined your child’s reaction to the event and have managed your own emotions, you’re ready to talk. Be honest, but age appropriate. Younger children may simply need reassurance that everything is being done to protect them and keep them safe. Older children may need more information in simple and direct terms. They may have questions about how the event will affect them, what caused it, how it could have been prevented, or how they can help. You don't have to have all of the answers. Just being there to listen and offer support is enough.
4. Practice empathy
In addressing these situations, be mindful of your child’s past experiences and temperament. Kids of the same age can react quite differently. You may have to adjust the amount, type, and pace of the information you give to match what your child can handle. As the parent, you know your child best, and should feel confident that you are the best person to have these discussions. If you have a particularly sensitive child, try to limit the information they are getting from other sources and monitor their exposure on television, the internet, and social media.
5. Check in regularly
Remember that this is often not a one-and-done situation. Think of it as a process where the conversation will continue to evolve over time. There may be times when the child does not want to talk or is getting too upset to continue. That’s okay. Take a break and come back to it when you both are ready. Continue to monitor your child’s mood and behavior. If your child is having increasing difficulty regulating their moods, is becoming withdrawn, or is having behavioral problems in school or with friends, it may be time to reach out to your child’s primary care provider. We are here to help!
Have more questions about your child’s mental health? Our primary care team is here to help. At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around you and your unique health needs. Book an appointment with a provider through our app today or get 24/7 virtual care on demand.
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