Talking to Children About Complicated Issues

Reviewed Jul 12, 2021

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Summary

  • Ask questions to understand what the child is asking.
  • Be honest, but not too detailed.
  • Follow up a few days later.

Talking to a child about complicated issues such as racism, sexual orientation, terrorism, war, domestic or sexual violence, or natural disasters is one of the hardest jobs parents have, but it has to be done.

If your child hasn't been directly affected or hasn't asked you questions

You should still talk to them. If you can have a conversation about something hard that hasn't affected your child, it opens the door for them to come to you later if something does. It also helps them make sense of what they may hear from classmates or see on television or social media.

Gauge what level of exposure your child has. Kids talk to each other and overhear adults talking about traumatic issues. You can say something like, "There was a horrible thing that happened far away in ____________. What do your friends say about it?"

Talks, about specific events or difficult subjects, can happen at any age. They should be geared toward the child's age and level of understanding.

For example, to talk about something like racism or other forms of hatred, you can begin by discussing bullying. Say something like "I know your school has a bullying program. What is bullying like at your school?" This allows for you to say "Sometimes people get bullied because of the color of their skin, their religion or who they love. Sometimes that can happen in school and sometimes outside of school. Sometimes people who have different colored skin than us are not treated the same way."

When a child is young, the talks can be general: "How do we make friends and treat people?" If the child is older, the talks can be more specific: "What happens is what you are seeing in the news right now."

If your child brings up a difficult topic for discussion

Be honest with them, but don't overshare. You can do this by asking a question in return. For example, if they say, "A boy in my class was being teased for being 'girly'." You could ask, "How do you feel about that?" or "What do you think about that?"

If they start with a question, answer in a way that is simple or feels appropriate to the child's age and understanding. Then follow up with another question.

For all conversations

Spare children any gory details. Don't overshare. If your discussion is over their heads, they will fill in the blanks on their own which may not be good. Be sure to think about the kinds of things they are learning. Consider what you talk about on a regular basis.

Children understand things differently at different ages. For example, a 4-year-old doesn't understand what death is. They may ask, "When is Grandma coming back?" "Is Grandma sad?" Be honest. Don't tell them something like, "Grandma is taking a long nap in the ground." Keep answers developmentally appropriate like, "Grandma's body got hurt and stopped working. The doctors tried to fix it, but they couldn't."

When children talk about a subject such as terrorism, it is not so much about that event. What they really want to know is:

  • Are we safe?
  • Are we OK?
  • Can this happen to us?

Listen to what is the child is asking. What are they really concerned about?

Focus on the positive. Point out who the helpers are in the situation. Help children feel prepared by going over emergency plans with them.

Children need to hear that the trauma is not their fault. They need to hear that their trusted adult believes them. This is especially true for children who disclose sexual abuse.

Following up

Circle back to the talk a few days later: "I know we had a difficult conversation. I'm proud of how you handled it. Do you have any questions?"

Watch for behavior changes after a talk about a difficult subject that has been stressful for the child. A few signs could be:

  • More withdrawn, having more temper tantrums or being more irritable
  • More problems with their friends
  • Not wanting to do things they enjoyed in the past
  • Changes in appetite and sleep habits
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Changes in attention
  • Harder time completing homework or doing chores
  • Little kids "playing" it out or talking about it a lot
  • Regression with dressing or potty-training
  • More secretive

If you are worried, ask for help. School counselors, a local mental health office and your child's pediatrician are good places to go for advice.

Why it's important

You don't know what your child might want to talk to you about but doesn't because they are afraid. These types of talks let them know it's OK to talk to you.

If you start the talks with, "There's nothing you tell me that's going to get you in trouble," a child is less likely to keep worries to themself.

One of the best predictors of how well kids recover from stress is how safe they feel. Parents who turn off media coverage and talk to their children can help them feel secure.

By Jennifer Brick
Source: Kathryn (Katie) Bauman, LCSW, Strong Fathers, Durham, NC; Dr. Robin Gurwitch, Clinical Psychologist, Duke University Medical Center

Summary

  • Ask questions to understand what the child is asking.
  • Be honest, but not too detailed.
  • Follow up a few days later.

Talking to a child about complicated issues such as racism, sexual orientation, terrorism, war, domestic or sexual violence, or natural disasters is one of the hardest jobs parents have, but it has to be done.

If your child hasn't been directly affected or hasn't asked you questions

You should still talk to them. If you can have a conversation about something hard that hasn't affected your child, it opens the door for them to come to you later if something does. It also helps them make sense of what they may hear from classmates or see on television or social media.

Gauge what level of exposure your child has. Kids talk to each other and overhear adults talking about traumatic issues. You can say something like, "There was a horrible thing that happened far away in ____________. What do your friends say about it?"

Talks, about specific events or difficult subjects, can happen at any age. They should be geared toward the child's age and level of understanding.

For example, to talk about something like racism or other forms of hatred, you can begin by discussing bullying. Say something like "I know your school has a bullying program. What is bullying like at your school?" This allows for you to say "Sometimes people get bullied because of the color of their skin, their religion or who they love. Sometimes that can happen in school and sometimes outside of school. Sometimes people who have different colored skin than us are not treated the same way."

When a child is young, the talks can be general: "How do we make friends and treat people?" If the child is older, the talks can be more specific: "What happens is what you are seeing in the news right now."

If your child brings up a difficult topic for discussion

Be honest with them, but don't overshare. You can do this by asking a question in return. For example, if they say, "A boy in my class was being teased for being 'girly'." You could ask, "How do you feel about that?" or "What do you think about that?"

If they start with a question, answer in a way that is simple or feels appropriate to the child's age and understanding. Then follow up with another question.

For all conversations

Spare children any gory details. Don't overshare. If your discussion is over their heads, they will fill in the blanks on their own which may not be good. Be sure to think about the kinds of things they are learning. Consider what you talk about on a regular basis.

Children understand things differently at different ages. For example, a 4-year-old doesn't understand what death is. They may ask, "When is Grandma coming back?" "Is Grandma sad?" Be honest. Don't tell them something like, "Grandma is taking a long nap in the ground." Keep answers developmentally appropriate like, "Grandma's body got hurt and stopped working. The doctors tried to fix it, but they couldn't."

When children talk about a subject such as terrorism, it is not so much about that event. What they really want to know is:

  • Are we safe?
  • Are we OK?
  • Can this happen to us?

Listen to what is the child is asking. What are they really concerned about?

Focus on the positive. Point out who the helpers are in the situation. Help children feel prepared by going over emergency plans with them.

Children need to hear that the trauma is not their fault. They need to hear that their trusted adult believes them. This is especially true for children who disclose sexual abuse.

Following up

Circle back to the talk a few days later: "I know we had a difficult conversation. I'm proud of how you handled it. Do you have any questions?"

Watch for behavior changes after a talk about a difficult subject that has been stressful for the child. A few signs could be:

  • More withdrawn, having more temper tantrums or being more irritable
  • More problems with their friends
  • Not wanting to do things they enjoyed in the past
  • Changes in appetite and sleep habits
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Changes in attention
  • Harder time completing homework or doing chores
  • Little kids "playing" it out or talking about it a lot
  • Regression with dressing or potty-training
  • More secretive

If you are worried, ask for help. School counselors, a local mental health office and your child's pediatrician are good places to go for advice.

Why it's important

You don't know what your child might want to talk to you about but doesn't because they are afraid. These types of talks let them know it's OK to talk to you.

If you start the talks with, "There's nothing you tell me that's going to get you in trouble," a child is less likely to keep worries to themself.

One of the best predictors of how well kids recover from stress is how safe they feel. Parents who turn off media coverage and talk to their children can help them feel secure.

By Jennifer Brick
Source: Kathryn (Katie) Bauman, LCSW, Strong Fathers, Durham, NC; Dr. Robin Gurwitch, Clinical Psychologist, Duke University Medical Center

Summary

  • Ask questions to understand what the child is asking.
  • Be honest, but not too detailed.
  • Follow up a few days later.

Talking to a child about complicated issues such as racism, sexual orientation, terrorism, war, domestic or sexual violence, or natural disasters is one of the hardest jobs parents have, but it has to be done.

If your child hasn't been directly affected or hasn't asked you questions

You should still talk to them. If you can have a conversation about something hard that hasn't affected your child, it opens the door for them to come to you later if something does. It also helps them make sense of what they may hear from classmates or see on television or social media.

Gauge what level of exposure your child has. Kids talk to each other and overhear adults talking about traumatic issues. You can say something like, "There was a horrible thing that happened far away in ____________. What do your friends say about it?"

Talks, about specific events or difficult subjects, can happen at any age. They should be geared toward the child's age and level of understanding.

For example, to talk about something like racism or other forms of hatred, you can begin by discussing bullying. Say something like "I know your school has a bullying program. What is bullying like at your school?" This allows for you to say "Sometimes people get bullied because of the color of their skin, their religion or who they love. Sometimes that can happen in school and sometimes outside of school. Sometimes people who have different colored skin than us are not treated the same way."

When a child is young, the talks can be general: "How do we make friends and treat people?" If the child is older, the talks can be more specific: "What happens is what you are seeing in the news right now."

If your child brings up a difficult topic for discussion

Be honest with them, but don't overshare. You can do this by asking a question in return. For example, if they say, "A boy in my class was being teased for being 'girly'." You could ask, "How do you feel about that?" or "What do you think about that?"

If they start with a question, answer in a way that is simple or feels appropriate to the child's age and understanding. Then follow up with another question.

For all conversations

Spare children any gory details. Don't overshare. If your discussion is over their heads, they will fill in the blanks on their own which may not be good. Be sure to think about the kinds of things they are learning. Consider what you talk about on a regular basis.

Children understand things differently at different ages. For example, a 4-year-old doesn't understand what death is. They may ask, "When is Grandma coming back?" "Is Grandma sad?" Be honest. Don't tell them something like, "Grandma is taking a long nap in the ground." Keep answers developmentally appropriate like, "Grandma's body got hurt and stopped working. The doctors tried to fix it, but they couldn't."

When children talk about a subject such as terrorism, it is not so much about that event. What they really want to know is:

  • Are we safe?
  • Are we OK?
  • Can this happen to us?

Listen to what is the child is asking. What are they really concerned about?

Focus on the positive. Point out who the helpers are in the situation. Help children feel prepared by going over emergency plans with them.

Children need to hear that the trauma is not their fault. They need to hear that their trusted adult believes them. This is especially true for children who disclose sexual abuse.

Following up

Circle back to the talk a few days later: "I know we had a difficult conversation. I'm proud of how you handled it. Do you have any questions?"

Watch for behavior changes after a talk about a difficult subject that has been stressful for the child. A few signs could be:

  • More withdrawn, having more temper tantrums or being more irritable
  • More problems with their friends
  • Not wanting to do things they enjoyed in the past
  • Changes in appetite and sleep habits
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Changes in attention
  • Harder time completing homework or doing chores
  • Little kids "playing" it out or talking about it a lot
  • Regression with dressing or potty-training
  • More secretive

If you are worried, ask for help. School counselors, a local mental health office and your child's pediatrician are good places to go for advice.

Why it's important

You don't know what your child might want to talk to you about but doesn't because they are afraid. These types of talks let them know it's OK to talk to you.

If you start the talks with, "There's nothing you tell me that's going to get you in trouble," a child is less likely to keep worries to themself.

One of the best predictors of how well kids recover from stress is how safe they feel. Parents who turn off media coverage and talk to their children can help them feel secure.

By Jennifer Brick
Source: Kathryn (Katie) Bauman, LCSW, Strong Fathers, Durham, NC; Dr. Robin Gurwitch, Clinical Psychologist, Duke University Medical Center

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