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Boreal Community Media

Boreal Exclusive: How to talk to kids about difficult topics and events

Mar 29, 2023 11:02AM ● By Content Editor
By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media - March 29, 2023

When difficult things happen (whether it's locally or worldwide), it can be difficult to know how to talk to kids about it. Questions such as: 'where to do I start', and 'how do I know how much to disclose', can be tricky to navigate (this is especially true when we're trying to process the situation ourselves).

Related: Grand Marais librarian provides book recommendations for helping kids process difficult topics and events

But knowing how to navigate these types of conversations is important. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTST), "children's and teen’s reactions to [difficult events] are strongly influenced by how parents, relatives, teachers, and other caregivers respond". 

While this may seem like a lot of pressure, it's OK to not know all of the answers. 

Boreal Community Media reached out to the First Witness Child Advocacy Center of Duluth, which aims to "bring together a collaborative multidisciplinary team of professionals made up of law enforcement, social workers, doctors, therapists, advocates, prosecutors, and public defender’s office. Our dedicated team members work together to investigate child abuse and coordinate needed services", according to their website. 

Ally Washenesky, First Witness Child Advocacy Center's Advocacy and Prevention Coordinator, told Boreal Community Media that "there isn't really one right answer" on how to approach a difficult topic. 

One of the things that can be the hardest is knowing how to start the conversation. 

According to Washenesky, she says she likes to let the child and youth that she's working with take the lead. 

"Kids hear, see, and take in a lot more than historically given credit for and process information well before they are ready to talk about it. If a child asks a question, they have already put the work in to determine they want to know more - and should be met with an answer," she said. 

You can start by asking them if they've heard about the event, and if so, what they already know. There will never be a "right" time for difficult conversations like these, but it's important to make time for them.  

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends listening with an open mind, and if any misinformation is mentioned, to gently correct it in an age-appropriate way. 

If the child or youth are not familiar with the situation or event, start the conversation. 

"Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Silence suggests that what has occurred is too horrible even to speak about or that you do not know what has happened."

When it comes to determining how much detail to disclose, Washenesky says it depends on the child's age (physically and developmentally), how far out from the occurrence of the event, and family structure. 

"There isn't really one right answer," she added. 

She recommends to provide the details they ask for and go from there. 

"Focus answers on safety, security, and keeping the door open for conversation. If children or youth ask a question and it's met with resistance they aren't going to keep going to that person for answers and seek out answers elsewhere, like friends in school or on the bus."

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress suggests using communication that is factual, simple, and clear.

What do you do if your child doesn't want to talk? Washenesky says that "it's ok to check in. It's a caregivers job to ensure that children are safe and feeling safe - but they also don't need to answer."

The Center for Resilience & Wellbeing in Schools reminds caregivers to normalize and validate any and all emotions the child may be feeling, even if they're not ready to talk about the situation.

"Step into their shoes and let the your teen know that you understand what they are feeling and it makes sense to feel or think that way. You might say, “That makes sense,” “I get it,” “I understand,” “Other people feel that way, too,” and “You are not alone”.

Don’t be thrown off if a teen says “You don’t/can’t understand” or “There is NO way you understand what I am going through”. It is normal at this time of development for teens to express their uniqueness and separateness from adult experience. Validate and normalize it makes sense to have a different experience."

Here are some additional things you can do to help navigate big emotions:
-Leave the door open for questions and talking. As children and youth process the information, more questions may arise
-Limit their (and your) exposure to media. Constant news can be stressful for people of all ages
-Maintain normal routines, rules, and expectations
-Promote and practice self care

Common reactions the child may be experiencing:
-anxiety/stress around the situation, and that it may happen to them in the future
-physical symptoms such as headache, stomachache (see a doctor if problems persist)
-sadness, grief 
-young children sometimes exhibit “magical thinking” which might lead them to believe they are responsible for what happened (source)
-trauma-related play

Helpful resources:
-coloring book for kids to help process traumatic events
-Crisis Text Line: If children are experiencing extreme feelings of sadness, anger, or confusion and need more support crisis support is available by calling or texting 741741
-First Witness Child Advocacy Center: if you have questions or concerns, the First Witness Child Advocacy Center is available from 8:30-4:30 at 218-727-8353

Image: Cook County Public Health


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