Health and Wellness / Ages 2-18

How to Help Our Kids Process the Hard Stuff

Answering kids’ questions about frightening events in the world can feel impossible, especially when we’re anxious ourselves. How should families handle these difficult conversations?

There’s no shortage of scary and anxiety-producing news all around us, and—much as we’d like to—we can’t shield our kids from all of it. What do parents need to know about helping their children process what’s going on in the world around them?

Is it just us, or does it feel like every week brings a new tough question from our kids that we have to wrestle with over dinner or before bed? We’ve talked about ignorance and hate, police violence, racism, natural disasters, misinformation, and the pandemic, to name just a few of these thorny topics. Sometimes kids’ questions are simple—which can make them the hardest ones to answer. And undoubtedly, these discussions are even more complex and exhausting if you and your children are personally affected by the issues at hand.

We’ve turned to child psychologists and other experts for guidance on how parents should navigate these conversations, especially when we feel confused, uncertain, or traumatized by the events or topics ourselves.

Here’s some of what we learned:

  • Manage their information intake as much as you can. Kids notice everything. (Except the mess in their rooms, of course. They’re totally oblivious to that.) If the TV is on in the background or talk radio is going while you’re driving, they’re probably paying attention. Which means that they might be taking in news you haven’t vetted or helped them process. If you can, manage their access to the news by being intentional about screen time in your home and monitoring what they’re doing on their devices. This doesn’t mean you should pretend big stuff isn’t happening in the world around them; it just means you want to give your kids a chance to process news with you instead of on their own, and with the appropriate context that you can provide.
  • Start with simple questions, then let them take the lead. A good place to start is by asking them what they’ve heard about a given event—whether it’s personal or in the news—and how they’re feeling about it. (Pro tip: Those questions work just as well for teens as they do for little ones!) Then let them ask you questions and guide how much (or little) they want to talk about it. For younger kids, art projects—like asking them to draw a picture of something they’re thinking about or feeling—can be a nice way to ease into difficult conversations, too.
  • Keep it age-appropriate, but also tailored to your particular kid. Most of us would probably give a four-year-old a different take on the news than we’d give a 10-year-old. But just because your friend’s kindergartner knows everything about climate change, that doesn’t mean your kindergartner is ready for all that information. You know your kid best. Listen to their questions, gauge their readiness, and tailor your explanations to what you think is healthy for them to process.
“'I don’t know' is a perfectly acceptable answer to a difficult question, and it’s okay to tell your children that you’re feeling upset or confused, too.”
  • Be as honest as you’re comfortable with. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer to a difficult question, and it’s okay to tell your children that you’re feeling upset or confused, too. They learn how to process their own experiences and emotions by watching you, so being honest with them about what you’re feeling isn’t a cop-out—it’s helping them learn. (Of course, use your own judgment about what your kids are able and ready to process.)
  • Save space for joy. There’s always going to be stuff to worry about, and as caregivers, we can’t avoid feeling anxious for our children and the world they’re going to inherit. Of course, we want our kids to know they can talk to us about anything, but we also want to lighten their burdens and let them “be kids,” too. Add some fun family adventures to the calendar or make it a daily habit to share something that brought you joy or made you laugh today.

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