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How to talk to children about scary world events

I know the world feels a scary place at the moment for a lot of our children and teens.

Their minds and our own are understandably very focused on what is happening in Ukraine, and as result I am hearing from a lot of parents who are saying their child or teen is becoming increasingly anxious and worried about what might happen.

Whilst the reason for writing this post is in response to these pleas, the advice I share is relevant across all contexts and world scenarios. These might be weather-storms, climate change, wars, riots, or high profile prosecutions. Anything which bursts our children’s bubble of the world being an inherently good and safe place.

Before we can even begin to have these difficult conversations about scary world events we need to consider the context of the world our children live in. It is so important as these set the foundations upon which our conversations can be structured.

There are going to be times when the world will feel a scary place for our children and teens. Living in a digital era where global information is at our fingertips has opened up the world to us, but it has also brought with it rolling news when disasters and wars strike. 

We must therefore be very aware of this background context whenever something happens in the world.

If we don’t answer their questions, or seek to have conversations in advance – they will simply search for their own answers and these won’t always be evidence-based truths. Our children have iPads, mobiles, laptops, and curious minds. If we don’t actively start having conversations with our children, before they’ve said anything to us, then they will go searching elsewhere for the information. This might be with a friend, or it might be an online search, where they won’t necessarily get evidence based, thoughtful, age-appropriate truth. We need to be ready to have some of these conversations earlier than we think.

In this blog post I want to share with you three things I believe we need to be mindful of, before we even consider having a sit-down conversation with our children about the world event they are finding scary. There’s enough work in the three things we need to be mindful of to get you started.

Be mindful of…..

  • Ignoring the situation or assuming as your child hasn’t mentioned it they are not worried

This sits very much from the viewpoint of assuming because our child hasn’t mentioned it, they’re not worried about it. Now some children when they worry, do the obvious thing. They say “I’m really worried, I’ve heard this, and I’ve read this, and I don’t understand this, I’m really nervous about, what happens if something happens” etc. However, lots of children do not communicate their worries or anxieties in any obvious way. Instead it shows in their behaviour. We might see them become more challenging with their behaviour, they may struggle to manage those bigger emotions, possibly crying a lot more, having difficulty falling asleep at night, complaining of a tummy ache. We have to remember not all children will declare I am worried about x, y or z. We must therefore be mindful not to ignore the situation but actively seek out opportunities to have those conversations with our children

  •  Children pick up on other people’s concerns – yours, their friends, their teachers, the bus drivers, and so on and so on

We need to be mindful children pick up on other people’s emotions and others concerns that might be yours, their friends, teachers, etc. It could be anyone depending on the context in which your children find themselves in. We tend to think of our children within the bubble of our home. Yet remember, our children don’t just access information within the bubble of their home; they have friends who have access to information which they then share verbally, or on their digital devices.  Our children don’t grow up in a vacuum, because of the measures we have in place at home. Our children will be exposed to the way other children, other families, and other people are managing the same situation. This is not a blame game. It’s not a finger pointing, it’s just reality. Our children are part of a wider community, which goes back to the context and background I referenced earlier. If we don’t have those conversations with our children. They are going to get the information from somewhere else, and this information will not have your considered, development-appropriate, bespoke to your child slant.

  • Dismissing their concerns as a way of reassuring them

The third and final consideration we should be mindful of is dismissing our children’s concerns as a way of reassuring them. This is a really, really big one, and I say this with love. It is not that we dismiss their concerns because we think they are trivial, or we publicly laugh, mock, or belittle their worries. What happens is our instincts kick in before we even realise what we’re doing. Our child tells us that they’re worried about the war, climate change, storms etc. They may be worried that we’re going to die, or they’ve read about nuclear weapons, or the planet only having x number of years resources left etc. Obviously when you hear that from a child, it’s heartbreaking, you see the fear in their eyes, and you want to make the fear go away. The last thing you want for them is to be in that pain and in that fear. So we may say to them “you mustn’t worry at all, nothing bad is going to happen, you’re worrying too much”, and by doing so we dismiss their anxieties because we want to keep them safe. We want to protect them. We don’t want them to go to those dark places. I understand why we do that, but by doing that, the danger is our child feels their anxieties are not understood, and that their worries are not acknowledged. What will potentially then happen is our children just won’t come back to us when they feel more fearful or more worried, because they believe there just isn’t any point; we just don’t get it. Instead we need to meet them where they’re at and acknowledge how scary it feels for them by saying something along the lines of ” I understand it feels really scary. The idea there could be a war / a storm which might damage homes / a change in our climate which affecs how we live is something you think about a to and it makes you worried. The world feels really scary and unsafe right now”. Whatever it is your child is feeling. Meet them there, at that emotion. Meet them at the dark place they’ve taken themselves to, and by doing so you acknowledge their fears, and they feel heard.

Then and only then are you ready to tackle the nitty gritty of the conversation itself. I cover the five things you should then move on to do in my How Not To Screw Up Your Kids podcast episode 39: How to talk to children about scary world events and the link to listen is here  and available from 3rd March 2022

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