Help for Parents: Talking to Children about Distressing Events

Chris Ladish, PhD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist and Chief Clinical Officer of Pediatric Behavioral Health
Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital & Health Network

For many months, we have seen images and watched news that is both concerning and incredibly distressing, from the ongoing pandemic and the protests and unrest over the summer to a contentious election cycle and the events that took place at the U.S. Capitol in early January.

Managing distress related to this unrelenting stream of events in our nation can be challenging for adults and children. Parents may struggle with how to talk with their children when events like these take place. Below are a few suggested guidelines providers can share with parents to support their children:

Approaching Conversations
When sitting down to have conversations with your child, separate your adult feelings from what your child may be feeling, and then approach any conversation with respect to your child’s age, development and individual need for information.

Young children need to know they are safe. They may wonder why adults are distressed. Their world is understood through the lens of their own internal perspective and offering a lot of additional context may not always be helpful for them. In some cases, it may even add to their anxiety. Therefore, it is important to allow your child to set the pace. Start by asking open-ended questions related to events and check in about feelings. “Have you seen the news?” “What do you understand about what is happening? How are you feeling?”

Listen to your child’s response and then provide answers while correcting any misinformation. One to two sentence answers to questions is generally recommended and allows the child to ask the next question as a signal that they would like more information. It is okay if conversations are brief; check in within a few days about how your child feels about the conversation and whether they have additional questions.

Provide concrete information that is relatable to your child. For example, when discussing a riot or other violent event, you might say that some people are feeling very upset and angry and wish to express their anger, and — while anger is normal and okay — destruction of property, harming others and eliciting violence is neither okay nor helpful.

Older children may be able to relate more of the information they are seeing to the broader world about them. They may be more observant of their parents’ emotions and may need to understand or discuss why this is distressing at home.

It is important not to avoid conversations with older children. When information is missing, children may fill in gaps inaccurately, which can lead to increased stress and worry. Calmly assure that children have key messages about their safety and the safety of their family and loved ones and continue to check in about how they are feeling. You are your child’s safe harbor and they will take cues from you.

Teenagers will not only be interested in sharing their views on what is happening but may also be interested in taking action, depending on what is happening. Opportunities to advocate might include simple conversations with others, virtual community forums, discussions at school and within the classroom and advocacy at a legislative level through phone calling or letter writing.

An Opportunity for Learning and Teaching
While distressing and worrisome, events like those happening now in the world provide opportunities for parents to discuss strategies for negotiating conflicting perspectives with others. Though challenging and difficult to understand at times, differences of opinion are common and usual. We will not always agree with those we encounter. Those with alternate perspectives from our own reveal opportunities for enhanced learning, healthy self-reflection about our own internal beliefs and the chance to advocate and take action for what we feel is right.

Anyone with a teenager will relate to the fact that heated discussions about ideas and beliefs, while stressful, also pose opportunities for growth. Consider what you wish your child to understand about your own beliefs and how to negotiate differences with friends and peers in ways that are safe, non-violent and meaningful in impacting positive change for all in our community.

Managing Stress
We are all dealing with increased stress and will have individualized ways of expressing that stress. Our children will not only notice our stress but also have their own response to what they are witnessing. General guidelines to promote healthy stress management include monitoring both TV and social media exposure, reassuring about safety at home and within the community, helping children focus on what they can (versus cannot) impact and control, and enhancing daily structure.

Our nation feels very unpredictable right now. Both adults and children will find comfort and solace in familiar routines and patterns that can increase our sense of predictability. Rest, exercise, time with loved ones and the occasional retreat into distraction are not only helpful but important in restoring ourselves.

And in all things, don’t forget your mask.

Dr. Chris Ladish is a pediatric neuropsychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer of Pediatric Behavioral Health at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital & Health Network. She serves on the steering committee of the Kids’ Mental Health, Pierce County collaborative and resides in Washington with her family. Additional Mental Health resources are available at