How to talk to kids about the stresses in their lives

Children encounter troubling issues every day, from divorce, major illness and death of a loved one to community violence, natural disasters and other tragedies making the news.

To guide a child’s understanding of difficult issues, parents should initiate discussions and welcome their child’s questions, according to Katy Hopkins, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist with Norton Children’s Medical Group, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine.

Avoiding conversations may backfire if children draw faulty conclusions on their own or seek information from untrustworthy sources.

“Parents do their children a disservice if they think that by not talking about tough topics, children won’t think about them and will be protected from that reality,” Dr. Hopkins said. “Children should have adult things explained to them in an age-appropriate way, because they are impacted by adult things.”

As soon as a child questions or seems to be thinking about an issue, it’s time to talk. According to Dr. Hopkins, parents should find a quiet moment to speak with their child and have answers prepared.

With elementary-age children, Dr. Hopkins tells parents to broach topics broadly rather than reference specific issues. For example, when a school shooting occurs, a parent could say, “I wonder if kids in your class were talking about what happened at another school.”

If the child answers no, the parent can say, “I’m just curious what you talk about with your friends.” If the child did learn about the shooting, the parent can ask what the child heard and how they feel about it, then discuss the issue in an age-appropriate way.

Worried about your child’s stress?

If talking about concerns isn’t helping your child feel better, it’s time to meet with your child’s pediatrician.

When having conversations with children on difficult topics, Dr. Hopkins recommends that parents:

  • Share feelings and show control of anger, fear and sadness. This will help children feel secure.
  • Tell the truth. Share facts and dispel rumors and inaccuracies.
  • Give full attention to the child. Acknowledge their feelings, and don’t judge or minimize them.
  • Reassure that things will get better, you are there for them, they can ask questions anytime, and they and the people they care about are safe.
  • Encourage children to do something about what they’re feeling. Create care packages, organize or participate in community events, or raise money for charities.

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