How to Talk to Your Kids About Tough Subjects

How to Talk to Your Kids About Tough Subjects

2 March 2022 • Words by Alexandra Amodio 5 mins

We can all relate to the unease associated with talking to our children about unpleasant things for fear of upsetting them. As guardians, our natural inclination is to shield them from all-things-bad, but, realistically, that’s not feasible–particularly in this day and age. Really, the most important thing we can do is take a calm, forthright approach. Offer factual, age-appropriate information, whilst reminding your kids they’re secure, safe and loved. It’s really important that, as you have these conversations, you’re creating a space that “allows for listening,” said Dr. Nick Hatzis, medical director for child and adolescent programs in Chicago.

While you don’t have to talk about these topics with much younger children unless asked, it’s nonetheless vitally important to be prepared for if (and when) they do. You don’t have to have all the answers, but knowing the basic facts and the best way to approach the subject depending on the age of your child is a great place to start.

“As caregivers, we need to be mindful of the coverage our kids see and hear on TV and on the radio, as well as what they listen to over phone calls with friends and family. Images can be scary & overwhelming. But I believe in starting to mindfully build kids’ knowledge of the world at a young age, and doing it in a way that fosters their empathy and compassion.”

Deborah Farmer Kris

How to talk to your kids about traumatic or scary events in the world, depending on their age:

For Older Children

Kids talk to one another and the classroom/school environment can be a breeding ground for gossip. And if you have teens (or tweens), they’ll likely have gotten their information anecdotally or from social media. That’s why it’s especially important you provide them with info that’s both factual and unbiased, given the varying perspectives and context they may have been exposed to.

It’s okay if you don’t know all the answers, but be honest with them if that’s the case, and commit to finding out more. It’s also important not to get overly emotional–if you’re calm, you’re showing your children they can be, too (and, as many of us know, kids pick up on our moods instantly). Giving your child an opportunity to communicate their feelings is of the utmost importance for their healthy social-emotional development. By being calm yourself, you’re giving them the space to work through their own emotions, rather than reacting to yours. It’s important to note that no matter what your child’s emotional response is, it’s always best to OK their feelings.

As child development expert for PBS Kids and Parents, Deborah Farmer Kris, says, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”

For Younger Children (Pre-K and Kindergarten):

Keep the details to a minimum and use metaphors and visual representations to help them understand. If they have questions, answer truthfully and in simple terms.

In the context of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, for example, Farmer-Kris (who doubles as a parent educator, children’s book author, and founder of Parenthood365) suggests asking your child something like, “If someone took all your favorite toys without asking, how would that make you feel?”

Farmer-Kris goes on to suggest explaining that right now, the leader of one country, Russia, is trying to take another country, Ukraine, and say, ‘This is mine.’ Explain why it’s not right with examples your child can understand and relate to, so you can help them grasp why our country and many others are telling Russia to stop. She also suggests pulling out a map and pointing out where each of these countries is. Providing visual examples for a frame of reference helps kids make connections.

Point out what people are trying to do to help. 

As Mr. Rogers famously said, remind your kids to “Look for the helpers.” There are so many groups, individuals, organizations and governments coming together from across the world to help in unique, meaningful ways. By highlighting the collaborative and honorable nature of all the helpers around our world, it shines a light on the positive in what could be an otherwise jarring new reality for a child to process, helping to reinforce the good in humanity.

Use Books to Teach Your Kids That It’s OK to Not Feel OK

PBS recommends the following books as great ways to open up younger children’s understanding of the world and foster empathy. Take a look at these stories about refugees that can help kids get a better understanding of this and other conflicts around the world.

Help your child process their emotional response 

If your little one is struggling with the conversation emotionally and you start to see any signs of distress, stop the discussion and take a few minutes to help them calm both their minds and bodies. This can be done through simple grounding exercises, such as deep breathing. 

It’s very normal for children to feel panic and anxiety when discussing difficult topics. Be sure to validate their feelings and let them know that the emotions they’re experiencing are perfectly normal. Assure them that they are safe and loved by those around them. Take a few moments after discussing a heavy topic to shift gears and talk about something positive, like what you can do as a family to give back.

6 Ways to Help Ukraine as a Family

There are so many wonderful philanthropies, organizations and regular people serving as ‘helpers’ right now. Take a look at some of the resources linked below for ways in which you can support from afar.

Voices of Children: a Ukrainian organization’s Charitable Foundation providing psychological and psychosocial support to children affected.

Save the Children:
helping to deliver lifesaving, humanitarian aid to kids in Ukraine through their own Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. Donations help families meet basic needs like food, medicine, and shelter, and help kids get access to education and psychosocial support.

CARE: providing immediate assistance through its Ukraine Crisis Fund with food, water, hygiene kits, support services, and direct cash assistance.

Global Empowerment Mission:
buying train and plane tickets to help refugees that have been separated reach family or friends.

Project HOPE: Project HOPE emergency teams in Europe are sending medical supplies and standing by to provide health screening and care for refugees.

Additional Resources: 

Alexandra Amodio