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How to talk to kids about scary things

Written by PWG Therapist Jane Winfield

As a therapist, I am asked so often: how do I talk to my child about [fill in the blank: scary event in the world]. Lately, we’ve had no shortage of these. Between ongoing COVID, to the war in Ukraine, to more personal struggles–such as the illness of a loved one or family friend–parents are often at a loss for how to interpret the events of the very adult world to their children.

When parents and caregivers of children ask me this question, there are three big ideas I try to impart:

1) Control the narrative

  • As the parent/caregiver, you are the primary source of information, and the lens through which your children see and understand the world. Kids need to know that they can and should come to you for information. This applies to their little microcosm of a world (“Why is Uncle Frank so sad?”) as well as to the greater world around them (“What is the Coronavirus?” “What does war mean? Will our country go to war?”).

  • As intimidating as coping with this part of parenting can be, please trust me when I say you need to be the lens through which your children see the world, not one of the many other (often unreliable) lenses (e.g., Billy from 4th grade at recess).

How can you make sure that you control the narrative? Here are some ideas.

  • If your child is in later elementary school or around older children socially, and you think they may be hearing conversations about [COVID/Ukraine/one of the many other scary things in the world…], don’t hesitate to open up the line of conversation: “Honey, would you like me to explain what’s happening with _____?” They may say no, and that’s okay too–you’ve shown them you’re open to talking about it.

  • Praise them if or when they come to you with questions. (“I’m so glad you asked me that!” “I love when you ask mommy questions about the world!”)

Remember, if you’re not leading the narrative, it’s likely that someone else is (Billy from 4th grade recess…). You are the expert on your children, and you can best interpret what to and how to explain things to them. Children want their parents to be the gatekeepers of the world, so try to embrace this role and show your children you can and will be there to explain.

  • If your child is in early elementary school or preschool and/or not spending much social time around older kids, you can likely assume that large world events will not be on their radar. That being said, if your little ones do ask questions or express anxiety, that’s your cue to take charge of the narrative. If the “scary thing” involves their smaller microcosm of a world (for example: the illness of a loved one), then I would suggest preemptively starting the conversation and/or prompting to see if they would like to talk about it.

  • Particularly with younger children, less is more. Think general, simple explanations that get the point across before your kid loses attention. (Example: “People in a different part of the world are arguing and fighting. Some people are having to go somewhere else to live until it stops. It is not happening in our part of the world or to our family.”)

  • Once you’ve had an initial conversation with your child about a potentially scary topic, make sure to circle back to it and check in. This can be casual and brief–a way to remind them that it’s okay to come to you (“I was so glad you asked me about _______. We can keep talking about it anytime”).

2) Focus on and redirect the conversation to your immediate family. Assure your children that they are safe.

  • I can’t understate how important this is. What kids (whether one year old, or 17) need more than anything is a sense of safety and security in their immediate, nuclear family home. They need to know that “we” (our family/mom/dad/caretaker…) are okay. Are safe. That our microcosm of a family is not changing. That the scary thing in the world is not coming to our home (and yes, I understand the complicated nuances of this during a pandemic). But to the greatest degree possible, children need to know that they–and the adults who care for them–are safe.

  • Reinforce this idea with words, but also non-verbally. If a child has expressed anxiety or questions about a potentially scary thing in the world, ramp up the cuddle time. Extra cuddles, snuggles, and generally just time spent together can significantly reduce external anxiety from creeping into the home.

3) Always look for the helpers.

Jane and her two incredible daughters

  • As the wonderful Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers”) told us: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This is such an important aspect of explaining the world to children. It reinforces the idea that there will be helpers–that no matter the problem, adults will step in, take charge, and protect children from [the scary thing]. Again, I appreciate the complicated nuance of this when considering the problems faced by today’s world, and the often less than ideal responses from some adults.

But what your child needs to know is that adults will handle the problem. That it is not up to them to worry about or to fix. (For example: “Uncle Frank is talking to a doctor who is helping him feel happier.” “Scientists worked really hard to make a vaccine that helps protect our bodies.”).

Above all remember, you are the expert on your own child. You are the gatekeeper of the world for them. In their eyes (even if they don’t say it aloud), you make the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening. Keep that feeling of security alive for them. Mommy/Daddy/etc. will keep you safe. Will explain things to you in child-friendly language. Will be here when you have questions.

It may not be a perfect conversation; indeed, nothing we do as parents can ever be perfect. But you are more than enough for your child–to them, you are the perfect person to explain the world.

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