By Carey Snide
Pandemic, Ukraine, and more…the news is full of scary realities and kids are wise to it. Unless your child is completely shut off from the world, they are hearing the news and likely have questions, but how do you know just how much to tell them? How much detail is developmentally appropriate? Being open and honest while weighing these questions is not an easy parenting task.
A lot of child development experts recommend answering children's questions with a question, “What do you think?” or “Tell me what you already know.” Whether the child is four, fourteen, or twenty-four it is a good way to learn what information they already have and offers an opportunity to speak with them from where they are. If your child is not verbalizing these questions but you notice behavior changes or wonder if they may be thinking about these difficult topics, don’t avoid it.
We here at You Have a Village recommend taking into consideration your child's age and mental health needs. Not all children have the same ability to process distressful information, especially those children who already are experiencing mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression. We have put together some ideas on how to address their concerns. You can use the chart below as a starting point, maybe start with their age and check to see if the emotional capacity generally associated with that age of a neurotypical child matches what you know about your child. Wherever you land, it is important to know that they may have these thoughts or questions floating around in their head and need permission from you to talk about them.
Here are some scenarios for each stage. To set the scene, your child has seen or heard the news of Russia invading Ukraine:
0-4: “Mommy sad.” Your child can notice your emotions and can begin to express the same ones. They look to you for how to respond so it is important that you show them that having emotions is ok and that you are there with them, keeping them safe.
5-7: They still don’t understand the context of the news but do notice how fearful people are. They could be wondering if they should be worried. “Daddy, I’m scared. Are we going to be hurt too? I will fight the bad guys.” This is a great opportunity to ask, “Tell me what you noticed on the news.” And then help them name the emotions they are feeling, “That is a lot of scary stuff isn’t it? It is scary for me too.” And just like when they were little, offer them reassurance and space to talk to you. “I know this is scary and you may have lots of feelings and questions. Let’s check in every day but, hon, you can always just come to me and ask for a hug. I love you and you are safe.”
8-12: Your kiddo comes home from school and wants to help the kids impacted by the crisis. They may want to raise money, collect resources to help. They also may be feeling sad or guilty thinking about kids their age in danger or afraid. They are putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. When I was in 4th-grade hurricane Andrew hit Florida hard. I remember vividly thinking about how scared I would be if that was my school destroyed. So I came home from school and told my dad that my class was collecting books for kids so that they can still learn. When my classmates and I filled boxes to send to our peers, we all felt like we accomplished something that helped someone else. It may be that your child feels the need to do something like that, ask them what they would be missing and if you can come up with a plan or find a resource to help them help others.
13-17+: Your teen begins wondering if they should join the military or a crisis response team to help those in need. They are beginning to understand globalization; seeing how a humanitarian crisis on the other side of the world can impact them. It could be out of fear, “I need to do something to protect my family” or even anger at the injustice, “Someone needs to stand up to them so that those families are not hurt anymore!” This is a fantastic and important opportunity to talk about your family values, how you want to respond, and even make a plan to respond. It is also important to remember that their brain is still developing so they are impulsive and react sometimes, so this could look like a teen who is afraid and begins doing an exercise program to ‘be ready to fight because they are afraid. I was talking to a friend recently and her son has begun talking about joining the military in response to the news. In checking in with my son, I asked how he was feeling and what his thoughts were. He shared he is worried, angry but also feels it is important not to dwell on it right now. He likes to stay informed and has his opinions, but also knows he needs to create boundaries for himself so he does not get worked up. Taking the time to talk to our teens about these events and how they are feeling about it opens the doors to a conversation about larger world issues and ways to process those feelings.
I want to encourage all you parents out there feeling all these big emotions yourselves. This parenting gig is not easy on a good day, then you add in external forces that challenge our sense of safety, security, and justice and this job feels almost impossible. If you are feeling overwhelmed, lean into your self-care plan to model this for your child, no matter what age. At every age, your child is looking to you for how to respond so when they see you processing and regulating those emotions, they will feel safer, more secure, and capable of handling these challenges with you on their team. So, take a deep breath, have those conversations, and hug each other often.
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