Talking with Children
When the Talking Gets Tough
Wars, shootings in schools, natural disasters, deaths at sporting
events-- as adults we hope that these and other tragic outcomes will never
happen anywhere and definitely will not impact the children and youth we
care about. We would like to protect those young minds from the pain and
horror of difficult situations. We would like to ensure that they have
happy, innocent, and carefree lives.
So what is a parent, teacher, or other caring adult to do when disasters
fill the airwaves and the consciousness of society?
Judith A. Myers-Walls, Extension Specialist, Purdue
University. (Reprinted with permission)
- Don't assume that the kids don't know about it. They probably know more
than you think. The reality of today's world is that news travels far and
wide. Adults and children learn about disasters and tragedies shortly after
they occur, and live video footage with close-ups and interviews are part of
the report. Children and youth are exposed to the events as soon as they
can watch TV or interact with others who are consumers of the news. Not
talking about it does not protect children. In fact, you may communicate
that the subject is taboo and that you are unavailable if you remain silent.
- Be available and "askable." Let kids know that it is okay to talk about
the unpleasant events. Listen to what they think and feel. By listening,
you can find out if they have misunderstandings, and you can learn more
about the support that they need. You do not need to explain more than they
are ready to hear, but be willing to answer their questions.
- Share your feelings. Tell young people if you feel afraid, angry, or
frustrated. It can help them to know that others also are upset by the
events. They might feel that only children are struggling. If you tell
them about your feelings, you also can tell them about how you deal with the
feelings. Be careful not to overwhelm them or expect them to find answers
- Help children use creative outlets like art and music to express their
feelings. Children may not be comfortable or skilled with words, especially
in relation to difficult situations. Using art, puppets, music, or books
might help children open up about their reactions. They may want to draw
pictures and then destroy them, or they could want to display them or send
them to someone else. Be flexible and listen.
- Reassure young people and help them feel safe. When tragic events occur,
children may be afraid that the same will happen to them. Some young
children may even think that it already did happen to them. It is important
to let them know that they are not at risk (if they are not). Try to be
realistic as you reassure them, however. You can try to support them and
protect them, but you can not keep all bad things from happening to
children. You can always tell them that you love them, though. You can say
that, no matter what happens, your love will be with them. That is realistic,
and often that is all the children need to feel better.
- Support children's concern for people they do not know. Children often are
afraid not only for themselves, but also for people they do not even know.
They learn that many people are getting hurt or are experiencing pain in
some way. They worry about those people and their well being. In some
cases they might feel less secure or cared for themselves if they see that
others are hurting. It is heartwarming and satisfying to observe this level
of caring in children. Explore ways to help others and ease the pain.
- Look for feelings beyond fear. After reassuring kids, don't stop there.
Studies have shown that children also may feel sad or angry. Let them
express that full range of emotions. Support the development of caring and
empathy. Be careful not to encourage the kind of response given by one
child: "I don't care if there's a war, as long as it doesn't affect me and
- Help children and youth find a course of action. One important way to
reduce stress is to take action. This is true for both adults and children.
The action may be very simple or more complex. Children may want to write a
letter to someone about their feelings, get involved in an organization
committed to preventing events like the one they are dealing with, or send
money to help victims or interventionists. Let the young people help to
identify the action choices. They may have wonderful ideas.
- Take action and get involved in something. It is not enough to let
children take action by themselves. Children who know that their parents,
teachers, or other significant caregivers are working to make a difference
feel hope. They feel safer and more positive about the future. So do
something. It will make you feel more hopeful, too. And hope is one of the
most valuable gifts we can give children and ourselves.
Children & Violence | Current Topics in Psychology | Teaching Tools | Trauma
Last Edit/Update: Sunday, 30-Dec-2001 00:02:00 CST
Current Topics in Psychology Copyright © 1996-2001 Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.