Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Tough Talks: Answering Children's Questions about Scary Events

September 11, 2001 was the second day of school at the early childhood center where I was the director.  The parents, teachers, and I had worked carefully at orienting the children to the new school year, and they were adjusting beautifully.  As news unfolded that morning of the horrific events downtown, I understood my responsibility to protect our students and offer guidance to their teachers and parents.

The first thing I did was to speak to each teacher privately, directing her not to speak about the news in front of the children.  We were all shocked and scared.  We didn't know what scenarios the children might encounter at home.  Our priority was to maintain an emotionally safe environment; to protect them from the news for as long as possible.  I also cancelled outdoor play for that day.  We just didn't know enough about the dangers and what might happen next.

Many parents opted to pick their children up early from school that day.  They felt safer having their children by their side.  For those that remained, I assured parents that we were doing everything in our power to keep them safe.

Some parents kept their children away from the television news, others didn't.  A few families lost friends or relatives.  There was a range of exposure among our classes.  One boy continually built a tower of blocks and knocked it down with a toy car.  A little girl began withholding her urine. I maintained our policy of not initiating class conversations about the attacks, but prepared my staff to be open to listen and respond appropriately to the children's questions and concerns.  The children who expressed their worries behaviorally, like the two mentioned previously, were addressed individually and in partnership with their parents.

How do we answer tough questions from young children?  I have a two-pronged approach: 
 1.  Be honest and direct.  Answer the question simply.  Don't elaborate. 
 2. Reassure the child that he/she is safe.  You will protect him/her.

Children often bring out the best in us, and this is especially true at difficult times when we must be strong for them.  We keep our antennae up for any signs of worry and give extra loving comfort and attention.  When they verbalize their concerns in a question, we owe it to them to tell the truth.  The truth is never as scary as our imagination. But we don't have to tell the full story.  Most children neither want nor can understand the full story (can we?).  They need direct, simple, unembellished answers, in language they understand.  

Being truthful with our children shows them that they can trust us.  And building trust while they're young earns valuable dividends as they and their troubles grow up.  We always want our children to turn to us first with their questions.  One of the greatest accomplishments I felt as a mother was when someone told my children something and they would ask, "Is that right Mom?"  They learned to trust me. 

Young children are by nature egocentric.  Developmentally, they are not yet able to understand life from someone else's viewpoint.  Therefore, the underlying question when asking about scary things is always, "Will this happen to me?".  They need to be reassured that yes, bad things sometimes happen, but you are safe.  We love you and will always take care of you.

We can't prevent bad things from happening in our lives, but we can help our children understand the good and bad in life at their developmental level.  We can help them build trust, resilience and compassion.  Tapping into our own sources of hope and faith, we can envelop our children in love and keep them happy and confident.

1 comment:

  1. So true! I have always felt the importance of being honest and truthful when my kids ask me questions about serious matters. I love the idea of being direct but keeping it simple! Well said :)