Children pick up on far more than we often realize, and it’s not just through their smartphones and other devices. They hear people talking on the streets about catastrophic events like the crisis in Ukraine. They sit shivering next to open windows at school, wearing surgical face masks because of COVID. They perceive their parents’ worries, fears and tensions — even when their parents don’t talk about what’s causing their stress. (Also read: 6 ways to love your grandparents and make them feel special)
Mental health experts say we shouldn’t ignore our children’s worries or the questions they might have about the chaos in the world.
“Children want to be protected,” says psychologist Felix Peter, who works in schools with children and teenagers and represents an initiative called Psychologists for Future.
Kids should be able to feel that the adults in their lives are doing their best to ensure that everything will turn out okay.
And the best way to do that is to talk to kids about what’s going on in the world. But how do you do that in the right way?
Take their feelings seriously
Children express their feelings differently, depending on their age or experience, say experts.
When they are younger, kids often have trouble finding the words to communicate their feelings. That can lead to physical symptoms, like stomach pain or headaches, says Katharina van Bronswijk, a psychotherapist who works with Felix Peter at Psychologists for Future.
A crying child needs to be comforted above all else. Then, questions like “What’s on your mind right now?” or “What happened today?” can help them to express their feelings in words.
“How we speak about crises with children also depends on the cognitive and emotional development of the child,” says van Bronswijk.
But as soon as a child starts asking questions about world affairs, says van Bronswijk, those questions should be answered.
“People often say you should try to take a child’s fears away. But we think fears should be talked about,” says Felix Peter.
The psychologists say that if you tell your child, “Don’t be afraid,” your child might think you are banning that certain feeling. “I understand, it scares me too,” they say, is a much better reaction because it lets the child know you are taking them seriously.
Parents should not be afraid of their own feelings — or fear revealing their concerns to their children.
“Children are better off when adults are honest,” says van Bronswijk.
But, as adults, we have to remember that we are responsible for managing our own feelings — children should not be made to feel that they are responsible for their parents’ anxieties, the two psychologists say.
Parents should be well-informed when they speak with their children about problems like the Russia-Ukraine war or the global climate crisis. But it’s okay if you don’t have the perfect answer for every question. Parents should feel they can be honest and take time to do their own research before answering their children’s questions.
Fear, worry, a lack of knowledge — it’s all fine. Adults should, however, try to come to terms with their own feelings before speaking with their children about them.
Managing your own emotions can teach your kids a valuable lesson: All types of feelings are allowed, and speaking about them can help you learn how to make sense of them.
Child-friendly crisis communication
Perhaps the trickiest questions are “What words do I use? How deep can I go?”
Felix Peter’s answer is simple: “The child’s questions decide the conversation.”
Parents should allow conversations to be led by their children’s questions. “And there’s no need to lecture them,” Peter says.
Time and space are important for these types of conversations. But children understand that. When you are in a rush at 8 a.m., just before school or work, it’s probably not the best time for a lengthy questions and answers session about a war.
But do remember to come back to their questions later in the day!
And if you feel unsure about how to explain the Russia-Ukraine war, for instance, the psychologists suggest looking into news that is made specifical for kids.
“But parents should not let their children watch war videos,” says van Bronswijk. “Those images are hard to bear even for adults.”
Be a role model
Whether it’s the climate crisis, COVID or the Russia-Ukraine war — the psychologists say that many adults struggle with a sense of powerlessness or helplessness.
So, these tips, they say, also apply to you: Talking about uncomfortable feelings can be very helpful. And that can help you be a role model for your children.
There are children who feel less affected by global crises, says Felix Peter, and that’s okay as well. “Kids don’t have to be as sad as adults. We shouldn’t force our feelings on them.”
Edited by: Alexander Freund