Should you talk to your kids?
When we hear these are unprecedented times, it seems like an understatement! We are witnessing more in the past few months than many have in a lifetime! Let’s start with the pandemic that shut down the entire world. That has certainly impacted us (see a previous post: Coping with Covid-19) and it most certainly has had impact on our kids. They watched as schools shut down, travel stopped, churches and religious groups stopped meeting, people started staying home all the time, food shortages happened, cleaning supplies and toilet paper became a highly valued commodity, and wearing masks were necessary in public places.
Working with children, the biggest two concerns I heard were that they missed their friends (so important!) and the wondering if everyone was going to get sick and/or die. If you were plugged in to television or social media, you probably exposed your kids to locust plagues in Africa and Murder Hornets entering the US with threat to harm food supplies. Then, there was the murder of George Floyd which was all over television and social media.
Even if you shelter your kids, they were bound to hear some family member talking about it. They also likely heard about the protests and the rioting that followed. Should we talk to our kids about these scary and horrible things? Why expose them!
Are others talking to their kids?
After a conversation with a friend, I started to think about the difficulty of living as a parent in 2020! We love our kids and want to protect them! We don’t want to share horrible things with them because we just want them to be happy. And we want happy and emotionally healthy kids. I also started to wonder how many parents are talking with their kids, so I messaged a ton of people to ask the question, “How are you talking to your kids about what all is happening? What questions are they asking you and how are you responding?”
I intentionally asked various people, being black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, single parent, married parent, middle class, low SES. The thing they all had in common was they were in my social media contacts and currently or had lived in NC. Most were parents of school-aged kids, but some were parents of preschoolers and teenagers. What I found out was that almost every parent responded with something like: “I am not talking about it”, “I don’t want to expose them”, “I only talk with other grown ups but we do not talk in front of the children”, “I want to shield my kids”, “I don’t talk about it unless they ask a question”, “I am not talking about it yet but I will talk with them when they get older”, or “I tell them what they need to know about going in public to be safe but nothing more”.
I did have another parent who talks to her school-age children about everything going on as she believed they had been exposed to all of it to some degree. But, it seems like no one is really talking to their kids too much.
Should we expose our kids?
While I don’t think it is appropriate to share too much, like watching violent videos, I do feel that it is important to talk to your kids about the hard stuff. I think the way you talk to a young child is through playing, reading books, and and helping them understand where others come from or what facts there are about things. Older kids are ready to talk and they are getting information from somewhere if not a parent. With technology devices and television, you know they have seen or heard something. Even a national children’s television station took a break to make awareness for social injustice one day.
I really cannot imagine that children have not been exposed to the stressful changes and traumatic events going on. I had a friend message me during local rioting saying that her husband had to go out the house that night to his shop, and he also carried a gun. This was because rioting was happening and people were breaking windows, flipping cars, and spray paining things. Granted her child may have been asleep, there is always a chance that they were awake in bed listening.
I remember working with a young boy who had some big behaviors and was getting in trouble at school. His mom did not believe he had witnessed the shooting that occurred in their neighborhood because it was after he had been asleep. When we introduced treatment and I briefly spoke the unspeakable, he played the entire event out to a detail. Now, I only stated and showed him with toys that there was a shooting and police came in the neighborhood but he was able to play it and tell his mom “and he ran through those woods” while pointing.
Kids are Perceptive
One parent shared that her child asked her why they were being picked up early (when stores/daycare’s/camps were closing early the evening of the scheduled protesting for #BlackLivesMatter) in this community. Her response was to tell the nine year old that the town was going to get very busy and they needed to get home early as a result. She didn’t let him know that she and others were concerned that there may be some rioting. Instead she discussed that there were people protesting for social injustice. She informed me that this was not a new concept either. Her child’s response was, “You mean Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?” Kids really do get this stuff.
One child asked about someone being killed. My own child overheard something and asked us “What’s man’s name cop killed? He was a bad cop?” And, we of course were able to go into the example of social injustice and use our faith as a foundation for helping him understand the rights of all people and why some people make bad choices. Prior to this, he would say, “Cooper says…” all the time after listing to talk radio and we could have conversations about Corona Virus updates and what was going on in our state. We knew this was his way to gain control of things, so we let him tell us news updates. He also played doctor.
Kids know when something is up
Our kids know, because they can pick up on things. Even if they don’t over hear us or talk radio, they are aware of their schedules being interrupted. They are also highly aware that something is off when mommy, daddy, or whoever the caregiver is seems to be very sad, anxious, angry or just different. Kids are always paying attention. And, they are always looking to caregiver’s to make meaning of what is going on. They learn to understand things this way. This is why talking to your kids is so very important. It helps them to understand where feelings and changes in behaviors are coming from. This way they don’t internalize that they are upsetting to mommy when asking questions or they are not safe because everything is changing and dad is anxious.
How do we talk to our Kids?
Your younger kids may not have the words for everything, but watch their play. Watch for themes emerging in their play. Are people sick and dying? Are good guys and bad guys becoming more aggressive? Do they want mommy to find them or see them? Even though it can be hard to share though topics with your preschool-aged kids, they are probably ready for it when done in an age appropriate manner. For example, reading a coloring book about COVID-19 or reading a story about diversity is appropriate for preschoolers. Use what you see them playing about and drawing pictures of as a jumping point for what is on their mind as well. When you see something, ask them about it.
You likely will not have to do much talking, because they will tell it all! Sometimes their reality isn’t what your reality is, and that is okay. You can support their feelings and perceptions of world events while also helping them to make sense of what is happening. Same thing goes with older kids, they are watching or hearing about it. Even though they may not be talking about it, they are thinking about it. Ask them questions, so they know they can come to you about anything bothering them.
Dangers of not Talking
Do you know what happens when we don’t talk about the tough stuff and help our kids process their feelings? What happens when our children are exposed to stressful experiences and never have someone guiding them in their understanding of situations? Children are left with overwhelming feelings that they may be able to name but not understand. They are hijacked by overwhelming stress that manifests in numerous ways. They may be triggered and respond in intense emotions and behaviors. Their brains and nervous systems are impacted, which means things like sleep and appetite are impacted. Learning and peer relationships becomes an issue because they cannot focus and utilize those frontal lobe skills needed to be successful. You can find more information on this at The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and other places.
What if you’re not ready?
What if you feel too emotional to talk to your kids about the things that make you very angry, sad or worried? Or if you cannot talk to your kids without bursting into tears? What if you cannot talk to your kids because you just freeze up and cannot think to form the words? Or if you feel so angry that you know you will say something hurtful? Maybe it is time for you to reach out to a support group or professional about helping you first. There are wonderful early intervention programs and infant/Preschool mental health programs as well. There is help so that you can talk to your children about the things that they are being exposed to in stressful and traumatic ways.