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Talking to Your Kids About Current Events and Difficult Situations

We live in world of constant news, and the influx of information is never ending. The ease with which we find news for ourselves as adults also means our kids have access. Inevitably, kids will ask questions. What do we say to them when even we adults cannot fully comprehend the magnitude of things?

It is important to be able to talk about difficult topics with our children. As uncomfortable as it could be, it is much better for children to obtain information from trusted adults versus other children.

A few points to consider when discussing difficult topics with your children:

Don't deny reality. Kids know when something's up. It is confusing to them to say "everything is fine" when it is not fine. For example, I once worked with a family in which the mother and father were discussing divorce in their marital sessions. They insisted the children were unaware. However, in a subsequent session with the children, they asked if I could "finally tell them the truth about their parents." The children knew their mother and father were having difficulties and were experiencing distress when told otherwise.

Acknowledge they are onto something. It is important to let kids know that their feelings matter. Part of parenting is teaching kids about their feelings and how to communicate them. Honor their efforts by being honest if they have perceived something correctly. If the child has not perceived a situation correctly, ask open ended questions about their feelings and allow them to ask questions in turn.

Age appropriate information is the rule. Research suggests that age appropriate or basic information will suffice. I like to ask open ended questions to see what the child already knows. Based on a quick assessment of what the child has already surmised, I can correct any misinformation without adding too many extra details.

In one instance, a young child asked about her absent father's drug relapse. I started by asking her what she thought. She stated she knew her dad "made bad choices" and takes "drugs that are bad." Since this information is fairly age appropriate and not much more information was needed, I opened a discussion about "bad choices." She did not need detailed information about drugs or relapse - those details are too much for a child her age. Instead, we focused on what she knew to be true and her feelings about it.

Another young child had a plethora of questions about his mother's treatment for breast cancer. Too much information about chemotherapy and surgery would have been anxiety-provoking. Instead, we focused on what he already knew about the treatment and his fears about his mother's well-being.

Focus on the feelings. As mentioned above, focus on the child's feelings versus details that could be overwhelming. Empathize with kids and let them know it is okay and it makes sense to feel the ways they feel. Share your ideas for coping skills or let them know what works for you when you feel the same way. For example, a parent could model deep breathing or explain that he or she is sad, that's why he or she goes for a walk.

Monitor exposure to the news. Watch news with your kids so they can immediately ask questions. Limit overexposure during tragedies so the influx of information is not overwhelming. Check in to see if they have questions.

Focus on solutions. Children hear about current events, such as school shootings, deaths, violence. Don't make promises that nothing bad could happen to them, even though doing so is tempting. Rather, focus on helping the child to identify basic signs of danger and know what to do should the danger arise. Don't overdrill this information and create anxiety. Turn tragic events into learning experiences. Help children to feel equipped with knowledge and how to obtain help in a dangerous situation.

Leave the door open for kids to revisit the topic. Let your kids know they are welcome to ask questions again at any time. Check in with them over time to see if there is anything they would like to discuss. Tell kids that if you do not know the answer to one of their questions, you will find out and let them know.

Parenting has never been an easy task. With recent difficult events taking place in the world, the challenges only become more difficult. And as much as we wish it didn't happen, no family is immune to loss and hardship. It is important to use these challenging circumstances as learning experiences. Since we can't shield children from difficulty, we can equip them with lifelong strategies to effectively cope and persevere.

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