Miscarriage. Deaths. Medical diagnoses. Health emergencies. Pandemic. Police murder. Evacuation. Infertility. Burglary.
These are all hard things. In the last year, each of these has touched my family, and I have talked my little kids through every one.
My children, who are currently three and five years old, have been through a lot in a year. Let’s face it — it’s 2020 — we all have. One of the jobs of adults is to make sense of things for the children in their lives. The problem is, it can be hard to know exactly how to do that — especially during difficult times.
I’m lucky. I hold a master’s degree in counseling psychology. I worked with children as a therapist. I worked as a trauma researcher. Now I’m a writer. This means I have a practiced sense of the things you should think about and the kinds of words you can use when talking to little kids about hard topics. I wanted to share what I know, in the hopes that this knowledge makes hard situations a little easier for adults who have children in their lives.
I know that when hard things happen, it helps to have someone tell you exactly what to do. So that’s just what I’ve done. I’ve written out everything that you need to know about how to talk to your young, preschool-aged kids (2-5 years old) during hard times. Below, you’ll find four big ideas (the “what”), the science behind them (the “why”), and 11 supporting techniques (the “how”) to help you find the right words for your exact situation. I’ve also included infographics that you can save to your smartphone for easy reference.
A disclaimer: The communication techniques I’m about to tell you about aren’t a magic spell. They can’t erase what happened. But they can help you to help your child cope with it.
Let’s get to it.
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Remember the big picture
Before you talk to your child, it pays to take a beat and remind yourself that, whatever has happened, you really can help your child through it. Take comfort in the idea that your relationship and your words matter right now.
You may already know this intuitively, but you may not know that there is an emerging field of study about these ideas called interpersonal neurobiology. It aims to understand the ways that human relationships can lead to physiological changes in the brain.
From this research, we already know that parent-child coregulation, the process by which parents can guide their child’s emotional responses, can help kids cope even during the hardest of times, such as when children experience homelessness.
Here are two conversational techniques to help you remember the big picture when you are talking to your child about something hard that has happened.
Give your child a story. As an adult, you may need to process the bad thing that has happened. But, since you’re the adult, it is not your child’s job to listen to you process. Instead, your primary goal should be to give your child a story that helps them make sense of their experience. Before you talk with them, decide the broad strokes of what the story will be.
Identify your goals. You should also ask yourself: How do you want your child to feel when you are done talking to them? Loved? Calm? You may also have other goals: to reassure, to educate, or to affirm your family’s values. Your goals depend on the context of your child, your relationship, and what has happened. Keeping your goals in mind as you talk can help these goals become reality.
Be easy to understand
When you explain hard things to your child, use words and phrases you can picture your child repeating. The biological stress response can make it difficult to process information. That’s why, even for adults, simple and familiar language is easier to understand in a crisis.
Here are four techniques for how you can communicate in a way that is easy for your preschooler to understand.
Borrow your child’s words. When you’re searching for the right words to talk about something hard, you can start with the words your child use regularly. The night before my oldest child’s first day of distance learning kindergarten, someone broke into our home while we were putting our children to bed for the night. When I had to explain this to my young children the next morning, the phrase “home invasion” became the more familiar “someone came into our home without asking.”
Keep it concrete and specific. When I was considering what words to use instead of “home invasion,” I was first tempted to say, “Someone broke into our house.” However, I noticed that “broke into” is a confusing, ambiguous phrase. Instead, I used concrete and specific language. I said: “Someone opened our back door. They took my green bag and everything in it, including my keys. Then they used the keys to open our garage and drive away with our car.”
Draw on stories and analogies your child already knows. When George Floyd was killed by a police officer in our Minneapolis neighborhood, we found ourselves at the epicenter of a global uprising. Even with our longstanding commitment to social justice and emphatic support for the protests, it was challenging to make sense of the burned-down buildings and boarded-up windows my children saw. So I drew on the Disney movie Inside Out, which we had recently watched. I reminded my kids that in that movie, “Riley’s anger helps make sure that things are fair…Anger is helping make our community more fair.”
When you explain hard things to your preschooler, you can use a movie they love — like I did — or a book or a TV show or even an inside joke. You don’t need the perfect words, you just need the words that make sense to your child. Your goal is to build a bridge between what has happened and how your child can make sense of it. The materials you use should come from your child’s life.
Tell your child what they will notice. Our city councilmember called for children to evacuate our neighborhood during the civil unrest following Mr. Floyd’s murder. When we were preparing to leave, I kept it simple and focused on telling my children what they would notice. “You will see me move the car from the garage to the front of the house. You will see me and Daddy pack our suitcases and put them in the car.” Focus on what your child will see, hear, smell — whatever is relevant. To help you imagine what your child will notice, you can picture yourself in their bodies, at their heights, interacting with the world as they do.
Help your child feel safe
When young children experience something hard, one of the most important things for their adults to communicate is a sense of safety.
There are some contexts where this is relatively easy to do. When my childrens’ great grandfather passed away, it was straightforward to explain his death from old age in a way that did not threaten my childrens’ sense of safety.
However, many other hard times are hard exactly because they are dangerous and threaten safety, such as a pandemic or forest fire. It is possible to communicate a sense of safety to your child, even when you also need to communicate danger. Here are three techniques that help children feel safe when you are talking about something hard.
Tell your child it’s not their fault (Hint: It’s probably no one’s fault). While certain hard things, like our burglary, do involve a specific person making a bad choice, in my experience, most hard things you and your child encounter won’t involve blame in stark terms like that. Even though it is natural to want to assign fault, it can be both more honest and compassionate to acknowledge that this difficult situation just happened. When we lost our daughter to miscarriage last year, I told my children, “The baby’s heart stopped. When a baby is still growing in their mama’s uterus, sometimes that happens. It is no one’s fault.”
It is important to say this directly because — absent another explanation — it is natural for young children to assume that they caused something bad in their world to happen, like the divorce of their parents, even when they did no such thing.
Let your child know the grown-ups are in charge. When difficult situations happen, it feels good to know that someone is in charge. For your child, you can be that someone. Even if things feel out of control for you, the truth is you are the grown-up and you will take care of your child. Reminding your child of that fact is a gift.
Acknowledge uncertainty. Usually, we adults have a good handle on what we can expect in any given situation. In the last year, one of the things that has been so painful for me is that I have not known what to expect about very big things that impact my children. I don’t know when or if the novel coronavirus will go away. I don’t know when or if we will give my boys a sister. Not knowing exactly what to expect can make kids feel uncertain and unsafe. It is tempting to reassure my children by promising outcomes I can’t actually control. When I’m tempted by this, I remind myself that showing my children that I am an honest person whom they can trust is the best safety I can offer.
You can help your child feel safe and like their grown-ups are in control without promising things you can’t deliver. I have found this mantra useful: “We can’t know what will happen, we can know that — whatever it is — we can handle it, together.” Phrases like this one can boost resilience, which is a buffer against the stress of hard times.
Hard things are messy. When you show that you are with your child in the mess by listening generously, you show them that you care and that they can trust you. Listening well like this also communicates to your child that they are not alone. This is why listening is the first step of psychological first aid. You can give this support to your child by using these two techniques for listening generously.
Acknowledge feelings. When you give name feelings, you help diffuse your child’s experience of those feelings. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel calls this strategy “name it to tame it.” Stick to simple feeling names to support ease of understanding: happy, sad, angry, scared, excited. Make room for more than one: When my older child needed stitches on his lip, he was scared to be in the hospital and, at the same time, happy I had brought candy to bribe him with. You should also feel welcome to acknowledge your own feelings. Saying what you feel helps normalize your child’s feelings, which is also calming for them.
Ask open-ended questions. When I worked with clients in therapy and we needed to talk about difficult subjects, I often used techniques from my training in Motivational Interviewing. A cornerstone of MI is empathic listening, which is a technical way to talk about how you can use special skills to listen in a particularly caring way.
Two MI skills are particularly helpful in combination: a neutral observation and an open-ended question. This pairing creates a non-judgmental container where honest sharing feels safe, exactly what you want during hard times with your child. Here are examples of the kinds of things you can say to them:
“Things have been different today, huh. What have you noticed?”
“I see that you are moving around a lot right now. What are you feeling?”
“I just said a lot of words. What questions do you have for me?
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Finally, a little bit about what you can expect when you need to talk to your child about something hard. Be aware that the conversation might not happen all at once. Especially if your child Is very little, you will probably have periodic short conversations, rather than one big one.
In addition, you can expect repetition. Your child may ask the same questions again and again and may need you to say the same answers again and again. This is how children learn. You can embrace your child’s repetition as an indicator of how much they need to talk and when they need to talk about what has happened.
However and whenever you need to talk to your child about hard things, you can also expect that these techniques will be here for you. Remember, because you’ve been there for your child when things were relatively easy, you are the best person to help your child when things are hard.
You’ve got this.
More resources for talking through hard times:
This piece was also published on Medium.