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Talking to children about tough topics can be tough

Lately I have noticed my 4-year-old son seems burdened with some heavy questions: “Mommy, everyone dies, right? When will I die? What day will it be? What will happen to my skin?”

Needless to say, I find myself on my toes, not to mention a bit creeped out. This might have started when he found out about dinosaur extinction. It’s hard to not crack up when he says, “I know what happened. First came the dinosaurs, then came the state guys [George Washington and George Bush], then came people, right?”

He is clearly processing some big ideas when he is at a very egocentric stage and needs some guidance. Talking with children, expressing our opinions, transferring our values, responding to their needs and questions, helping them understand our complex world, these are the formidable tasks and responsibilities we have as adults.

To name a few: why and how people die (especially the death of babies and young people); single parenthood, when one parent is out of the picture; personal experiences of racism; violence in our daily lives or as seen on television news or dramatic shows; overhearing or being involved in domestic violence, adult arguments or fights; natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods; man-made disasters, such as mass murders; inexplicable disasters, such as plane crashes.

The list, once begun, is endless and daunting, requiring at least a book’s worth of answers.

Developing trust and telling the truth are two things to which children innately respond. The filters that we have built up as adults are virtually nonexistent in young children, and we need to honor their need for these elements as critical nourishment for their healthy development.

That said, how do we do this?

Consider your answer. In response to any difficult query, say something like, “That was a very good question you asked. I’ll try to do my best to answer you.” Buy a little time and think seriously about what you believe and want to say before you answer.

Encourage curiosity. Learning involves thinking about and being interested in the world. So when a child asks a difficult question and an adult says nothing, or discourages the conversation or says, “Don’t talk about that,” children say to themselves, “What does that mean? Why doesn’t she answer me? There must be something wrong with my question or wrong with me.” In addition, if no answer is given, children will create an answer that may or may not be appropriate.

Listen carefully, maybe even more than you talk. Before you begin to respond be sure that you are focusing on the question a child is really asking.

Start simple. No matter the age of the child, start with basic information to find out what the child already knows, then build on that foundation.

Begin answering right away. When a child comments or asks you about a difficult topic, answer in the most straightforward way you can. If you do not have time to think ahead (which is usually the case, as children respond to an inner need to ask questions at socially unacceptable times!), then say something general like, “Those people are screaming at each other because they are angry.” Come back to discussing the incident again at a calmer or more private time.

Continue the conversation. The generosity of children, thankfully, extends to giving us adults multiple chances. If we honestly cannot decide what to say about a given topic, tell a child, “That is a really important (or great, or interesting) question, and I am thinking about what I want to say.” Then remember to return to the discussion.

Protect our children. There is no way to really protect children from the vastness of our social confusion. What we can do is to examine our own family values and attempt to convey them.

Communicating with children on a daily basis and being available for discussion on any topic – big or small, happy or sad – is extremely beneficial to children as they grow, change and move toward independence.

Being supportive, responsive and understanding adults keeps these dialogues going throughout the inevitable complications of life.

[Kids First is a department of the city of Aspen funded by the affordable housing/daycare tax. Kids First provides information and funding for early childhood programs. For information, contact Amy or Shirley at 920-5363 or kids_first@ci.aspen.co.us. Portions of this article are reprinted from BANANAS newsletter. The Kids First column appears weekly in The Aspen Times]


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