Recommendations for Talking to Children When the World Feels Heavy
When it comes to talking to children about heavy topics, “The takeaway headline is, ‘It’s complicated,’” says Tim Grove, Senior Director of Trauma Informed Strategy and Practice at Wellpoint Care Network.
“You can find a lot of resources out there that give quick advice. And, within the proper context, it can be the right advice. But to truly be helpful, it depends on where the child is at.”
Grove says regardless of age, it’s important to think about the following questions.
“Does the child have a preexisting trauma history? Is there evidence that they’re going to be more sensitized to difficult images, stressful stories, etc?
If I’m surviving my own set of circumstances in my family, my community, etc, by definition, it’s harder to fully absorb all the terrible stuff going on in the macro.”
That’s especially true for children in foster care.
“By definition, children who are in foster care are more likely to have histories of prior exposure to adversity and trauma,” said Grove. “So, I’d be a little more cautious or careful about understanding that history. That doesn’t mean they are affected by that history, but it does mean it might be more likely.”
“There’s so much that we know about trauma that can be helpful. When children are taught that survival is the priority, and they get good at learning how to survive — and, by definition, learning how to survive means you are way more attentive to any potential threat than folks who haven’t been taught how to survive — then that runs the risk of those children interpreting gruesome images or difficult stories from whatever source in a different way.”
To fully understand how much a child should be exposed to, we as adults must first be attuned to what is going on and how we are processing it.
“It’s a really critical opportunity for the adults to be able to step back and say, ‘What’s really going on with this child? What’s really bothering them?’ That’s an easy thing to put on paper and a much harder thing in reality. When we coach adults around what that looks like, it’s hard because the adults may also be scared, anxious and concerned. Adults have their own stuff going on — not just regarding war in Israel or Ukraine or Sudan — there’s a lot of heaviness out there. That makes it harder for adults to be fully present, fully engaged, fully able to put their own stuff aside and zoom in on what the child particularly needs. But, if they’re able to do that, then you can ask some good questions. ‘How much is the child absorbing about what’s going on? Are they seeing all sorts of graphic, horrific images? What is their response to that?’ Considering these factors are only possible when the adults who are trying to support children are able to manage their own difficulty with heavy world events themselves.”
When children are exposed to the heaviness from any source, Grove shares the following recommendations.
“Sleep is a really big deal, because sleep is hard to manage when things get stressful. Trying to avoid consuming any media before bedtime is a really smart idea. Try doing something as relaxing as possible before bedtime — taking a walk, having a cup of tea, a warm bath, reading a book. All that stuff matters.”
Grove’s other recommendation is to be cognizant of screen time.
“The other thing that is really hard to do in today’s day and age — hard for adults and hard for children — is limiting social media intake. I would recommend picking an hour or 30 minutes in the morning, and then if you need to do it, maybe 30 minutes before supper or whatever time works for you. But, stay disciplined to those windows, whatever they might be, because quite frankly, the repetitive, constant absorption of graphic images and gruesome news is part of the problem as well.”
This could also be a good time to explore therapy options, if needed.
“If your child has clinical resources, reach out and leverage them as support people,” adds Grove. “They can be another pair of eyes in terms of how the child is doing. If the child hasn’t been using these resources for a couple of weeks, it may be time to try to schedule an appointment.”
Finally, as is the case in so many aspects of life, connection is key.
“If historically you would take a night time walk with your child or foster child, but the stress of the past months or weeks has gotten you out of that routine, find a way to trick yourself back into that routine (i.e. make the walk a scavenger hunt). If you used to have time and capacity to play a video game with your children versus letting them do it on their own, see if you can once again find that capacity to spend 15 or 20 minutes playing a game with them. It’s important to join them on stuff they enjoy doing — it creates those powerful micro moments (i.e. a shared smile, a congratulatory fist bump, etc).”
When it comes to talking about war specifically, Grove says a great resource to guide in that conversation is this article from the The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which recommends the following steps:
- Start the Conversation
- Clear Up Any Misunderstandings
- Provide Context
- Monitor Adult Conversations
Another resource is: Psychological First Aid
If you or your child need additional resources or support, Wellpoint Care Network’s Mental Health Clinic can help. Learn more or book an appointment today.