Talking With Kids About Heavy Topics
As parents are acutely aware, there are adult things to know about life and about our world, and then there are things suitable for kids. But there’s a lot of gray area in between. It’s always a judgment call, and it’s changing all the time. Slowly as babies become toddlers, and toddlers become preschoolers, and preschoolers move on to elementary school, and then become ‘tweeners… and so on.. More and more of the adult world we live in begins to filter into our kids’ awareness, even the more challenging parts like hatred, rape, war, oppression, and DeVos for education secretary (sorry, had to throw that in).
Depending on your family’s social location or individual circumstances, challenging adult topics may impact our kids long before we would wish it upon them. In fact, this is often the case. Racism, divorce, cancer, deportation… Some things rock our universe as parents in such a big way that there is simply no sheltering the children from these gruesome adult realities. Our realities become their realities quickly in such times.
To heap challenge upon challenge for us as parents, when we are going through our most difficult times as adults, that’s when our children lean heavily into us in order to begin to begin to try to make sense of what’s happening. Kids are smart that way: they go to their safest spots to do the hardest work (i.e. to you).
So, as parents, talking to kids about loaded adults things is frankly an inevitability on the parenting journey. But if we can turn and face this aspect of our job with the resolve of “OK, this is mine to do,” then we are better positioned to help our kids take in even really difficult information in a way that they can digest. (Or, if not fully digest it! at least we can position our kids to be able to stay present, thinking, and open-hearted in the face of big topics and big challenges).
This is an important aspect of our job as parents: to help kids develop the capacity, when possible, bit by bit, to remain present and engaged in life even in a very complex world with lots of challenges.
Yes, it’s a big job to be the one to deliver this crazy world to our kids in a way they can handle (more or less). But we don’t have to do it alone, and we don’t have to do it even close to perfectly. The good news is that we don’t have to try and keep life’s challenges from touching our kids (we can’t and we shouldn’t), we just need to learn to walk with them through whatever life throws at us.
Here’s a few things to help you think about how to take on hefty topics with kids:
- Have the conversation when you are not charged about it. This is a really hard, I know. Some of the things about the world we’ve inherited and the world we’re creating are downright undigestible even to grown-ups. But if we come at kids with our own charge, they will shut down before we begin. Kids feel our emotional charge before (and often instead of) hearing the information we’re sharing. We need adult-only spaces to process our harder reactions to these things, and we need tools (more on this tomorrow) to help bring our activation down when it goes up, BEFORE starting difficult conversations with kids.
- Have the conversation when things are going well. Look for the “green light” indicating your kid can listen, think, and take in new information (Is she relatively calm and able to focus? Does he look up when you say his name? Can she make eye contact?). A kid already steeped in upset won’t be able to handle even an ounce of a challenging topic.
- Aim shallow. Don’t jump into waters that you know are way too intense, if you can help it. Aim to start with what your kids already know–you can even start with asking them what they know–and gently head in the direction of the deeper end until their body language says, “enough!” (more on that below).
- Keep it simple and fairly brief. Adults need to talk about things more than children do. For many of us adults, our other avenues for processing information and feelings have already been pretty shut down (crying, laughing, playing, or creating, for example). So you’ll need to stop before you feel like the talk is over. You might notice that after a few sentences, your kids eyes will glaze over. If you get that “checked out” look, stop. Don’t make them drink from a fire hose. It helps no one.
- Scaffold difficult conversations with warm connection, physical contact, and subtext messages of “you’re my kid and I love you!” We can help kids feel safe and secure before/during/after challenging conversation by staying attuned to them, and by offering warm connection. If children feel reassured that they are cherished members of the family, they will feel safe for longer periods of time, and take in more complex information. Emotional safety = Heightened learning capacity.
- Remember: Play, laughter and movement are some of the ways kids process difficult things. Don’t be put off by jokes, silliness or wiggles from kids when you bring up hard topics. Their behavior is not meant to “disrespect” you or the topic you are discussing. It’s how your child is (brilliantly) de-stressing and digesting the content you talked about… and perhaps telling you, “That’s all I can handle for now.”
- If the topic is scary in present time, emphasize all that the adults are doing to keep everyone safe. Talking to children about adult challenges without emphasizing how hard adults are working to figure out good solutions leaves children feeling like it’s up to them to find answers: this is way too big a challenge for them. With that said, having children play a small part–like putting signs in the window, saving money to contribute to a cause, or having a “job” to do during a family move, etc.–these child-sized tasks can be empowering in otherwise overwhelming times. Even if you don’t feel sure that adults have all the answers (and I’m sure you don’t!), let your kids know “We will keep working at it until we come up with better solutions. We can figure this out.”
- Follow up the conversation with some light-hearted play or a favorite activity together. Heavy topics a go down best with chasers of fun and sweetness. Yesterday I wrote about the Tussle-Snuggle, but I’m guessing you’ve got some of your own sweet ways to playfully, affectionally connect. Book end hard talks with more of THAT when you can. It will keep them coming back for future conversations (which is a great goal!).
It’s okay, moms and dads, we’ve got this (well, we’ve sort of got this; we’ve got it well enough, anyway!). but remember, don’t go it not alone. Talk to friends, reach out to people whose kids are older, or to people who’ve already had to have these types of conversations. Ask them to just listen, and be sure to vent plenty before you go in for hard talks. And let me know how it goes and what you learned!
With admiration for the parents you are,