Words by Casey Newman
Black Lives Matter. Racial and social injustice. A seemingly out-of-control pandemic. Corruption. Any parent would struggle to talk to their kids about normal life experiences like sex, puberty or death, but add in what’s going on in the world, and it can seem nearly impossible to get started. But it’s important that you start somewhere because if you don’t, your child is likely to find information about these subjects from other sources.
“It’s uncomfortable, it’s difficult. You don’t necessarily know what to say, you stumble around, but do you want to be the one who tries to explain it to them or do you want Timmy on the bus to be the one that explains it?” says Dr. Geoffrey Putt, a pediatric psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Addressing tough issues with your kids can help them feel safe, teach them about the world and strengthen your bond. By sitting down and talking with your kids about heavy subjects, you’re also modeling how to collect information and think critically.
“[Kids] are going to hear misinformation. They’re going to hear people throwing out opinions that are maybe not supported by evidence or may be contrary to what your belief system is. So if you are in control of the information, you can be sure that it’s accurate,” Dr. Putt says.
Though it seems overwhelming to broach these subjects, there’s no right or wrong way to do it.
“You don’t have to have all the answers. That’s OK,” he says. “But you do want to think about what you say before you sit down.”
Find a Distraction-Free Environment: Once you know what you want to talk about, you’ll want to have the discussion in a distraction-free environment.
“You don’t want to get into a super heavy topic and then you get partway in and then suddenly something distracts them and pulls them away. You want to have that conversation to its natural conclusion,” Dr. Putt says.
Present Things at an Age-Appropriate Level: Children under the age of 6 don’t have enough life experience to understand heavy topics. They don’t really understand cause and effect and they’re very sensitive to your emotional state. What you can do is break down information in terms they will understand. For racial or social issues, you can explain that some people still aren’t treated fairly or equally.
Address Your Feelings and Theirs: For younger kids who are more sensitive to your emotional state, it can be helpful to explain that while you may feel upset, you’re not upset with them. And then say it’s OK to feel whatever emotions they’re feeling.
“Ask them ‘How do you feel about this, what does that mean to you?’ Maybe they’ll say something, and maybe they won’t. But the fact that you’ve asked that question gives them the OK to talk about it,” Dr. Putt says.
Find Out What They Know: Kids get information from a variety of sources. Before you sit down to talk, find out what they know about a subject.
“I would recommend asking questions like, ‘You’ve heard about this coronavirus thing. What is it?’ Get explicit before you launch into a big explanation about what racism is or Black Lives Matter or coronavirus or what a pandemic means,” Dr. Putt says. “Know what they know, what they understand, and then you might save yourself a lot of time and you can correct some misinformation. You can also sometimes find out where they got that information to realize, OK, this is a source that I need to moderate. It gives you an idea of what they’ve already been exposed to.”
Don’t Go to Extremes: When it comes to exposing your child to current events or the news, Dr. Putt recommends trying to find a middle ground.
“It’s important to not completely eliminate exposure to all forms of information, but you also want to try to expose them to things,” he explains. “So any of the extremes are things that I would try to avoid. These would be things like you don’t talk about it and you shut off all the news. Or you’ve got the news on 24/7. So it’s finding that balance. It’s also making sure that you’re using credible news sources, [because there are] conspiracy theories and so many things that are just incendiary regardless of the topic. I think some news exposure is good because it can prompt some conversations. It can prompt some discussion. It can help you clarify.”
Don’t Avoid Topics: Most any topic, regardless of seriousness, can be discussed with a child, if done appropriately, Dr. Putt says.
Is My Child Feeling Anxious? How to Tell.
For a lot of children, anxiety manifests as physical symptoms. You might also find your child seems more fidgety than usual, chewing their nails or chewing or twirling their hair. Or your child might be more reluctant to leave home or have trouble sleeping if they’re feeling anxious.
“Headaches and stomachaches are a really good sign that it might be anxiety. [However], it could also be other things, but the canary in the coal mine in our bodies is our stomach. Think about if you have to do public speaking and you stand up, you might feel like you’re going to vomit, right?” Dr. Putt says.
If you aren’t sure if your child is experiencing physical symptoms from anxiety, Dr. Putt recommends tracking their symptoms.
Do their stomach or headaches occur before it’s time to go to school or a party? If you find a pattern, it could be anxiety. But if you can’t find a pattern or if you have questions about what your child is experiencing, talk to their pediatrician.
“Going to the pediatrician puts it on record that this is a concern and you can kind of monitor it together, then they may have some other suggestions,” Dr. Putt explains.
If you find your child is experiencing a lot of anxiety, there are things you can do to help.
“Most of the things that are most effective for treating anxiety are skills, things that we learn, how to think and how to cope. Kids just haven’t learned those coping strategies, but you can go online, find effective strategies for managing anxiety,” Dr. Putt says.
You might find resources on deep breathing helpful or creating a relaxing sleeping routine. However, Dr. Putt notes, if anxiety is impairing your child’s ability to function, it’s time to seek outside help.
“If they’re saying they can’t go to school or they’re calling you from school or not sleeping and it’s causing problems or they’re having panic attacks every time they go to the grocery store or the car, those are situations where you need to seek help,” he says. “Once it rises to the level of causing any kind of clinically significant impairment and academic functioning, social functioning, family, functioning, sleep functioning, when it impairs one of those areas, then that’s where I would probably see a counselor or a psychologist or something along that line.”
No matter how you choose to talk to your children about tough subjects, being present and honest with them will make all the difference.
Casey Newman is a mother of two who depends on wine to get her through bath and bed times. She is a maternal and women’s health advocate who volunteers with several birth and maternal rights organizations and has spoken to Congress members about issues affecting moms.
Photo: Dr. Geoffrey Putt, used with permission from Akron Children’s Hospital