If we permit children to talk to us about what they are thinking and feeling, we can give them needed information, prepare them for a crisis, and help them when they are upset. We can encourage their communication by showing interest in and respect for what they have to say. We can also make it easier for them to talk to us if we are open, honest, and comfortable with our own feelings – often easier said than done.
When we avoid talking about something that is obviously upsetting, children often hesitate to bring up the subject or ask questions about it. To a child, avoidance can be a message – “If Mom and Dad can’t talk about it, it really must be bad, so I better not talk about it either.” In effect, instead of protecting our children by avoiding talk, we sometimes cause them more worry and also keep them from telling us how they feel.
Many of us are inclined not to talk about things that upset us. We try to put a lid on our feelings and hope that saying nothing will be for the best. But not talking about something doesn’t mean we aren’t communicating. Children are great observers. They read messages on our faces and in the way we walk or hold our hands. We express ourselves by what we do, by what we say, and by what we do not say.
On the other hand, it also isn’t wise to confront children with information that they may not yet understand or want to know. As with any sensitive subject, we must seek a delicate balance that encourages children to communicate – a balance that lies somewhere between avoidance and confrontation, a balance that isn’t easy to achieve. It involves:
- trying to be sensitive to their desire to communicate when they’re ready
- trying not to put up barriers that may inhibit their attempts to communicate
- offering them honest explanations when we are obviously upset
- listening to and accepting their feelings
- not putting off their questions by telling them they are too young
- trying to find brief and simple answers that are appropriate to their questions; answers that they can understand and that do not overwhelm them with too many words.
Perhaps most difficult of all, it involves examining our own feelings and beliefs so that we can talk to them as naturally as possible when the opportunities arise.
1. Let them see you hurt
It’s important for kids to see their parents in pain because that is how they learn how to deal with pain themselves. It’s good for you kids to see you cry. It’s okay for them to see you angry and experience the myriad of emotions that come with pain. Showing your pain needs to be partnered with explaining your pain. In an age appropriate manner, share what is causing you pain and give names to the emotions you feel.
While some children will talk about their experiences, many will express themselves through art, writing, music, or creative play. Get out the crayons, paper, markers, paint, clay, and other art materials. You can offer ideas such as making a card for people they are concerned about, creating a collage of pictures, or writing a letter that reflects their feelings. Be open to their ideas and suggestions for projects. It’s helpful to ask children if they want to share what they created with you, and to respect a “no” answer. Some children will be more drawn to physical activity than creative expression, so be sure to create time and space for them to engage in big energy play like running outside, sports, or messy creative projects.
2. Let them see you get up
Kids need to see how you move through the pain. Though “normal” life may stop for a time, kids need to see you resume your responsibilities. They need to see you step into life and continue in relationship with people. They need to see that pain does not permanently debilitate us. They need to see you get down on your knees, they need to hear your prayers and they need to see you draw strength from Jesus to move forward.
Research shows us that how well a child does in tough times is linked to how well the adults in their lives are doing. This doesn’t mean hiding your feelings from your child. Rather, it means ensuring that you have people and activities in your life that are sources of comfort and inspiration. By accessing support, you model for your children ways to take care of themselves, and you reassure them that you will have the energy and presence to be there for them. The better you take care of yourself, the better you can care for your child. Reach out to all the support that is around you: relatives, friends, church, support groups, counseling
3. Be honest with them even when you don’t have the answers
Telling your kids, “I don’t know” is so important. That is modeling honesty. There is much in life for which we don’t have answers and that is okay. We often can understand the how’s of pain but we rarely fully understand the why’s of pain. We would do well to be open and honest about that. If it’s not an unanswerable question, invite kids to come with you on a journey to find the answer.
4. Let kids lead the conversation
When working with kids its valuable to let them lead a discussion. Often times, we as adults, assume we know what kids think or believe. As kids watch you walk through pain, they see a great deal. Ask them what they see. Ask them how that makes them feel. Ask them what they believe. This will help you talk with your kids on their level and it will help you stay in age appropriate territory.
What’s most helpful is to listen without judging, interpreting, or evaluating. Some ways to start the conversation can be: How can I help you? I can see this is hard for you. Are you ok? It’s ok to feel ______, can we talk about that? Do you need a hug? I’m here for you.
5. Provide consistency and routine
Life has been in an upheaval during this time and even more so if there have been other big events in your family, so finding ways to create safety and predictability is helpful for children. For example, you might create routines around bedtime, after school activities, or meals. Children may also need some flexibility: This way they know what to expect (homework is done by 7pm), but can also trust that if they need something else (tonight you can take a break and come back to it later), their world will be responsive.
6. Always end with hope
Kids need to know that in the midst of pain there is stability. They need to know there is a way forward. Our hope is always in Jesus and whatever may come, he will walk through with us. With him, nothing is impossible.
A few things to consider for your child’s age
Young kids feel safe by knowing adults are in control. You may not feel in control and that is really tough. Make sure you are calm during conversations with our littlest kids and try not to project your fears in the conversation. They need to be sheltered from the gritty details of your story/experience and they need to be reassured that you and your family are safe. They are concrete thinkers and process things simply and very literally. They are beginning to identify emotions and the thoughts or experiences attached to them.
Elementary aged kids deal in facts best. They are old enough to hear a lot of conversation and so it is valuable to share the facts of what is/was going on. This age group is likely to have nightmares about what they see and hear so it’s valuable to filter the “scary” out of how you talk to Elementary aged kids. Sharing practical hands on hope is very helpful. They need to know why it’s going to be okay. They need to know how you and your family will be safe. It’s also valuable to give the practical things to do in order to heal or stay safe.
Preteen and beyond
As kids get older you shift from protecting and move more to helping them internalize and process the realities of pain and brokenness in the world. You may still need to filter some of the details, but they can typically better cope with the tensions in grief and pain. The aim is to walk through a conversation towards hope rather than letting them drift into cynicism. Invite them to share their thoughts and opinions on how you can move forward while remembering they are not your counselor.