Life. Death. Babies. Love. Sex. Relationships. Bullying. Guns. War. Racisim. Politics. The list is endless.
No matter how badly we want to shield our children from harmful or scary or uncomfortable topics, these issues will undoubtedly touch their lives. Parents wonder and agonize over how and when to talk about these things. We want so badly to believe that our children can be protected from these issues and we mistakenly think that by talking about them we are somehow making them lose their innocence. Heading for a “big talk” can feel like embarking on a long, stark road to nowhere.
A recent death in our family left me anxious about “having” to talk to my preschoolers about death. The loved one was unknown to my children and they would not be attending a funeral, but I knew it would not be possible to hide the loss from them. After ending yet another phone call, I was notably emotional. My son approached me, offered me a hug, and asked his questions. The conversation went like this:
Him: “Mama, did someone die?”
Me: “Yes, I’m pretty sad. I have been on the phone a lot this morning.”
Him: “Who was it?”
Me: “My grandmother. You met her once when you were very small. Would you like me to show you a picture?”
Him: (Ignoring my offer to show him a picture.) “Do you mean my grammy?”
Me: “No. Not grammy. None of your grandmas died.”
Him: “Can we talk to my grammy today?”
Me: “Yes, of course.”
Him: “We saw a dead bird at school yesterday.”
Me: “What did you think about that?”
Him: “It was kinda sad, but I don’t really know about that.” He paused and asked for a hug and then asked, “Do you know where my truck is?”
He got what he needed in that moment and ended the conversation. He recognized that a big issue was happening and that it was laden with big emotion. He wanted to connect and make sure that he understood that the people he was close to were all right. He related it back to the concept of death that made sense for him. He told me clearly when he had reached the limit of what he needed (by ignoring my offer to show him a picture and then changing the subject to trucks).
Topics like death are big. They are multifaceted and complicated and intricate. Understanding and processing them requires us to use many parts of our brain, multiple coping skills and a lifetime of acquired knowledge. We integrate our memories, understanding of social codes, belief systems and interpersonal dynamics to draw conclusions, formulate ideas about the situation, and relate emotionally. When big things happen in a child’s world, the child is doing all of this, too. Children just do it more slowly, in smaller chunks, and by relating it to what they know. If we support them in their process, rather than trying to process these issues for them, the idea of “talking” to our kids about these issues becomes much less daunting. Here are some basics.
What You Need to Remember
Kids are always getting information about these topics. It may just not be on a level that resonates for us as adults. When a child squishes a bug, she is learning about death. When children play house, they are learning about relationships (the foundation of learning about sex). If the radio or television is on in the home, children are learning about guns and violence and war and sexual objectification. These underlying themes are in books, cartoons and movies. Disney movies are full of lost parents and broken families and death and bullying. Literally every day there are multiple opportunities for children to take in and process information about these things.
Kids are always getting information from us on 1) how we handle these types of topics and 2) whether we are safe to talk to about these topics. Over time, they learn if we get anxious, or angry, or distant. They learn if we offer too much or too little. We may inadvertently give signs that their questions scare us or make us feel uncomfortable. We may avoid or shut down conversations. Or, on the other hand, we may have a habit of giving long-winded lectures or overly detailed information that overwhelms children and discourages them from engaging in future conversations. What we say about the little stuff matters.
Kids will ask for more information when they need it and are ready to process it if they have a safe venue for doing so. This means that, rather than determining when and how we should bring the information to them, we should strive to build a culture of openness and safety around dialogue within a family that allows a child to ask for what she needs when she needs it. Kids will often ask for little bits at a time. They will ask a small question, take time (maybe days or even weeks) to process it, and then ask a little bit more. Giving them the information at their pace will help them to incorporate hard truths without feeling overwhelmed. A few days after our conversation, my son asked, “Is your grandma still dead?” It may not have looked like it, but he was still processing and needed a little more information.
Processing does not necessarily mean talking. A kid’s work is play. When children play, they are processing, integrating, learning, feeling and thinking. It would not be unusual for a child to incorporate recent big issues into his play, and in fact it is healthy. Younger children may need to move their bodies and may need space for large, physical movements. They often incorporate heavy themes of love, death and life into their imaginary play. Children may pick out books that relate back to the theme. After the death in my family, I noticed my son asking to read Charlotte’s Web, which deals with death on various levels. I don’t think this was a coincidence! Older children may retreat into music or video games that mirror back their emotional state. All of this is processing.
What You Need to Do
Be open and responsive to all questions – Helping kids with the big issues starts with being there for the small ones. If a child wants to talk about his bug that got squished, it is important to remember that this is in fact a conversation about death, about loss, about grief. Responding in a respectful and open way to these little questions not only helps children process big issues in small stages, but also allows us as parents or caregivers to practice talking about these things as well! Think of it as baby steps for all parties!
Don’t over-think or plan big lectures – Keep it simple. Answer their questions. Give them the information they ask for, and not more. Think about it. If you went to your first math class ever, asked about addition, and the teacher went into a lecture on trigonometry, you would feel anxious, overwhelmed, and incompetent. You probably wouldn’t want to go back. If you have built a safe relationship in which questions are respected, you can trust your child to ask for just as much as she needs.
Give them a chance to process – Remember that kids process at different rates. Don’t push them into processing something too quickly. Be patient, both in the moment and in the bigger picture. Answer the question and then pause. Take a breath and wait for the child. Maybe he will ask another question. Maybe he will tell you a story. Maybe he will change the topic. All are okay. If he changes the subject, it’s okay. It just means that he has gotten what he needs in that moment. He will undoubtedly bring it up again in some way in the future.
Make yourself available – Occasionally telling our children that they can always talk to us isn’t enough. In fact, it may be pointless. Children will know whether or not they can talk to us because of the countless number of interactions, responses, and opportunities that they have experienced with us over the course of their life. More importantly, opportunities to process big issues are not planned-out,-sit-down, formal affairs. They happen in quiet, surprising moments. They happen during work, during play, during downtime and up-time. In short, we need to be available to our children on their terms. For younger children, this may not even look like talking. It will likely look like play. If you hear your children playing with big topics, don’t interfere or stop them, but be available. Sit down in the room and observe. If they invite you into the play, join in!
Phrases to Memorize
Sometimes (maybe even most of the time) helping children process is less about talking to them, and more about helping them talk to you! Asking them questions can help you determine what information they need, what they are thinking about and what level of processing they need at the moment. Rather than give advice, ask:
What do you think of that?
How does that feel?
What do you think you need?
What could you do?
How did it work?
How can I help?
What would you like to know?
So take the “big talk” off the to-do list. We don’t need it. If we do this today, tomorrow, and every day, we will be building a foundation of communication and a relationship that allows our children to feel supported in dealing with life in all its glory. They will be able to come to us, we will be available, and processing will happen. We won’t even have to plan it out.