Wellness Wednesday: Talking with kids about tough topics

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A boy talks with a woman.
A third-grade student, attending school remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, talks with his mother in February 2021. (BASTIEN INZAURRALDE/AFP via Getty Images)
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For most parents, this has been a year full of difficult discussions when it comes to news events. I'm a parent of a five year old, and trying to explain and contextualize our pandemic vaccinations, stories of police brutality, natural disasters, violence...and let's not forget, there was an entire election!

To try to talk about and contextualize those kinds of stories to kids can be challenging for parents. Some of us, including myself, have managed school from home for the kids. So life has been really turned upside down and how to have those conversations can be difficult.

But guess what? I don't have all the answers. That's why I call in an expert, an expert who literally wrote the book on this topic. Welcome. Abigail Gewirtz, who is a U of M professor in the Department of Family Social Science in the Institute of Child Development in the College of Education and Human Development. She's also the author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: When it comes to news events, election, the coronavirus pandemic...should we have conversations with our kids about these stressful news events?

Abigail Gewirtz: We should because if we don't have those conversations, other people will and I've never met a parent who would rather that their child learn about difficult and complicated events from someone who is not a parent, you know, who's not them.

Does it matter how old they are? I mean, there's probably different conversations that happen in different ages, right?

Right. So of course, the younger they are...I mean, I think with very young children, if you have control over their daily routines if they're at home, and if they're not exposed to older siblings, for example, then you know, you can probably get away with not talking to them, because they're not going to learn about it from someone else. But as soon as your child is outside the home, or has older siblings, they are very likely to hear about these big events.

So if my son doesn't hear it from me, he's probably going to hear it from somewhere else. So Dr. Abby, I wonder when I'm approaching a conversation about a difficult topic...I talked to my son a lot about the coronavirus pandemic, because it's something that really directly impacts his life every day in his routines. Should I really soften the reality for him? Should we couch how we talk to our kids about difficult things?

I wouldn't say "couch." I mean, I think what's really important is to answer all his questions, even though it felt uncomfortable for us. And so the first thing I tell parents to do is deal with your own stress first, because often we talk to our kids out of our own anxiety, we can easily see our anxiety spill over to our children. And it can be as simple as taking a breath, so that you can really be there for your child and help them feel that you're there for them not to impose your own agenda or worries on them.

Yeah, that's some good advice because I kind of worry about projecting some of my worries or anxiety. I don't want to project that onto him.

That's exactly what happens. I think we're...this is an extremely stressful world we're living in. And so our kids learn about emotions by watching us as well as by the way we respond to them. So if they see parents who are frantic and worried and stressed and impatient, then that not only makes them feel uneasy, but they might also feel that what's wrong is their fault.

What if our kids hear something in school or from friends that we never really intended them to know about? Or maybe it's kind of soon for them to know about, you know, in a conversation that we're not quite ready for.

Right? That's life, isn't it? It just happens when we either end up in conversations that we don't want to have didn't plan to have or say the things that we didn't plan to say, because we were stressed. You know, I call those red light conversations. The green light conversations are the conversations that can give a parent time to plan, which isn't always possible, when we just recognize what's going on. And we're just honest, without, you know...sometimes, for example, we end up providing too much information for our young children, or we reassure them about things that we can't reassure them about necessarily. You know, they come in, you know, your nine-year-old comes in and says his best friend's grandma is very, very sick with the coronavirus and you say, "Oh, she's gonna be fine. I'm sure she's a strong person." And of course, we want to reassure our kids, but we have to be very careful. So that's the kind of thing that we just want to be wary of. We want to be able to tell the truth, but doesn't mean we have to tell them everything.

Okay: we're going through a global pandemic or there's a stressful news story or, you know, if they hear about something that kind of scares them. How do we have the conversation with our kids, or me talking to my five-year-old? How can we talk about it in the best way that's going to benefit the kids?

So the first thing to do is to come from where they are. I think often we get anxious and we decide we have to talk to our children, and then what we do is we get ready and we go to the room. And they're not right, they're not in a space where they want to talk about it. So I think where possible, we should be able to follow their lead. And we want to pick our time and space, maybe over a cup of tea and a cookie. And then listen: that's the most important thing, right? So if your child has something to say, you know, they come in, they're really worried, you know, something's happened. Friend's grandma's really not well, for example, or something happened in school related to racial injustice or something like that. Sit down. And listen. And don't say anything. Because we want to jump in, you sort of were trained as parents, we're trained to have to say the right thing all the time. And we, of course, can't do that. So it's better just to be quiet, better just to sit and listen, almost stop ourselves from responding when we want to, because when we're able to sit quietly, we'll hear more from our children.

I think that's all really good advice. And I found that in my own interactions with my five-year-old, if I'm kind of looking for an answer out of him, he'll totally shut down, and he doesn't want to talk about it. But then if we have some quiet time together, that I've found that he will raise the issue with me, or he'll tell me that he's scared or he doesn't want to lose me, or you know, then suddenly, kind of it's that out of nowhere moment where he feels comfortable enough to tell me, which I hope that part never changes for us. Okay, so if I'm in the position with my child where he's coming to me, or they're coming to me, and they're able to share some of their fears: when the world seems like a scary place, like your book says, I will be tempted to maybe want to help them solve that problem. I'll want to come up with a solution. But what's the best way to help my child with something that they're having a problem with, or something that they're scared about? Because again, I'm going to be tempted to want to solve it for them.

Of course. In a way, it's our job as parents, right? But I would say that even more important is to teach our children to scaffold and to solve their own problems. So when our child is upset, because his best friend's grandma's really sick, and he's anxious about it, what we might say is when we finish listening, because listening is such an important process, where we might say is, let's together find a way for you to feel better to feel less worried about your friend's grandma. And also, let's find a way together that you can show your friend how much you care about him and his grandma. And every adult is familiar with the problem solving process: you start by brainstorming. You know, you throw out one idea and I'll throw out one idea, or all ideas are good ideas, and your child and you might throw out some wacky ideas. But what you are teaching your child is that they have a very important role to play in addressing the things that are disturbing them. And that's the life lesson.


Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.


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