How To Talk To Your Little Kids About Hard Things

Life can be difficult, but knowing what to say to your child doesn’t have to be.

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Big ideas for how to talk to your kids about hard things by Emily P.G. Erickson
Big ideas for how to talk to your kids about hard things by Emily P.G. Erickson
Image by the author, Emily P.G. Erickson
How to remember the big picture by Emily P.G. Erickson
How to remember the big picture by Emily P.G. Erickson
Image by the author, Emily P.G. Erickson

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.

Your primary goal should be to give your child a story that helps them make sense of their experience.

Give your child a story

As an adult, you may need to process the hard 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.

How to be easy to understand by Emily P.G. Erickson
How to be easy to understand by Emily P.G. Erickson
Image by the author, Emily P.G. Erickson

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.

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 uses 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.”

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.

How to help your kids feel safe by Emily P.G. Erickson
How to help your kids feel safe by Emily P.G. Erickson
Image by the author, Emily P.G. Erickson

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.

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 beating. When a baby is still growing in their mama’s uterus, sometimes that happens. It is no one’s fault.”

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.

“We can’t know what will happen, we can know that — whatever it is — we can handle it, together.”

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.

How to listen generously by Emily P.G. Erickson
How to listen generously by Emily P.G. Erickson
Image by the author, Emily P.G. Erickson

Listen generously

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.

How to talk to your kids about hard things checklist by Emily P.G. Erickson
How to talk to your kids about hard things checklist by Emily P.G. Erickson
Image by the author, Emily P.G. Erickson

More resources for talking through hard times

Parent’s Guide To Traumatic Events

Written by

Writer with a master’s degree in psychology. Helpful, science-backed writing about mental health, mindfulness, and motherhood. www.emilypgerickson.com

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