When upsetting events air on the television screen, social media feed or the radio, it can be hard for parents to know how to address these difficult topics with their children.
If you feel this way, you’re not alone.
“Your child may bring up the topic, but if they don’t, it’s not a bad idea to do so yourself,” says Michael Chen, PMHNP-BC, MSN, BSN, Memorial Hermann Mental Health Crisis Clinic - Northeast.
Here are his tips on handling tough, but needed, conversations with your kids and how to uncover what they may be feeling or thinking.
Answer Truthfully and Age Appropriately
When children ask questions or express pain about horrifying events, “It’s a good idea to have their full attention and listen carefully,” says Chen, who advises you to turn off the TV and other distractions.
“Let your child ask questions and set the pace,” he says. “Children 10 and under may not be able to label or express their emotions.”
Have a back-and-forth chat on what they’ve heard about the news and its aftermath. The younger they are, the harder it may be for them to grasp what’s going on. Misinformation breeds not only on the web but in schoolyards.
Slow down or back up the conversation if a child appears confused.
Don’t wait for children to initiate the dialogue, especially if you see it’s affecting their behavior, Chen says.
Even if they haven’t asked, it’s time to talk if you see any signs of emotional distress.
Signs may include abrupt changes in their appetite, mood, energy or behavior, he says. “They may be sleeping not enough or too much and may isolate or try to be more social.”
Preschoolers may say their tummy hurts or that they can’t or don’t want to go to school. They might cling to you when you part. They also may regress to earlier developmental stages or obsess about your safety and theirs.
With preteens and teens, you can have longer, deeper and more complex conversations about their anxiety, sadness or sense of helplessness.
“Don’t minimize their pain or shut down them down just because you’re uncomfortable,” he says. “Reassure them that the pain they feel now may not be permanent.”
You also can talk about ways to control emotions rather than being controlled by them, Chen says. “You might say, ‘Some things we can control, others we cannot. If you try to control everything, you’re going to burn out.’”
Routine may comfort smaller kids, but older ones will feel empowered by knowledge and actions, such as knowing the signs of mental illness and that they can report concerns about troubled students to school officials.
If You're Struggling, Breathe Deeply
“Being honest is the best approach,” he says, and “when talking with them it’s best that you’re calm and in control of your emotions. It’s also not a bad idea to rehearse what you might say.”
If asked, be truthful that you also feel anxious. “If you don’t have an answer, it’s OK to say so,” he says. “When you’re open, especially with older children, they can learn to be more open themselves.”
Note not only your children’s words, but also their body language and behavior, which may signal they need to move on—for now.
Use and Share Coping Techniques
Model positive ways to power down. Breathe, stretch, escape into music, writing or reading and encourage kids to do the same.
Talk about those tools if you see them obsessing about eating, depriving themselves of meals or binging as comfort.
“If you see children act out or self-harm, or if you suspect they misuse substances or have an eating disorder, talk to their pediatrician or therapist.”
Curb your exposure—and your children’s—to news and social media. It’s all too easy to drown in the sadness and madness.
Come nighttime, observe smartphone and TV turnoff times as a family. You’ll all sleep better for it.
Do Your Homework
You might talk to school counselors, psychologists and pediatricians or review online resources to understand the best approaches to topics, including mental health.
“Don’t force a conversation, and if there are certain things a child doesn’t want to discuss or anxiety interferes with their ability to function, don’t be afraid to involve professionals,” Chen says.
He also recommends the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “It’s a great resource.”