For parents, part of what makes childhood so special is innocence. Sadly, kids will eventually experience difficult things like poverty, crime, and death in their own lives and witness things like war and hunger on the news. They’ll look to mom or dad to help them make sense of what they’re witnessing, and that can be a terrifying realization for parents. How do you talk about such heavy, difficult subjects to a preschooler?
*This article only discusses topics specific to parents of preschoolers, i.e., children younger than 6. For help on discussing difficult subjects with older children and teenagers, talk to a teacher, pediatrician, or health care professional.
Limit the Exposure of News
It’s excellent that you feel the need to be an informed human being. However, your child doesn’t need to be on that journey with you. Constant exposure to heavy world events will only worry and overwhelm your preschooler. Keep exposure to difficult news to a minimum. Consume your news after they go to bed and make sure to change the channel to something more kid-friendly when spending time together.
When Bad News Is Unavoidable
However, if …
- Your hometown was hit by a natural disaster,
- Racism affects your family every day,
- A crime has been committed against you or someone you know,
- Someone you know or love has died,
- Or you’re “living the news” in some other way,
… you don’t have the luxury of minimizing the news. And you shouldn’t try to hide what’s happening from your child completely. Just keep doing your best to give your child breaks from the harm. For you and your family, talking about difficult subjects will need to happen more often.
Remember: There is no shame in seeking out a mental health professional to help ease the burden you’re feeling as a parent. Your state’s department of mental health and community health services often provide affordable mental health services to children and families dealing with grief, discrimination, or anxiety. There are lots of affordable private practices to choose from, as well.
First Thing’s First: Stay Calm & Ask Questions
When it comes to having a conversation about a difficult topic, the very first thing to do as a parent is to stay calm and not overreact. Preschoolers are very sensitive to their parents’ emotional states, and an overreaction to their question (scowling, avoiding the topic, staying silent) could send them the message, “The question you just asked is bad.” Take a deep breath, and then immediately ask them what they know about the topic and how it makes them feel. Addressing their fears and concerns directly will be more helpful (and probably easier!) than talking about the difficult subject as a whole.
Also, if your child decides to ask you about war or racism in the grocery store, gently let them know you’ll talk more about it on the way home. Don’t worry — no one is expecting you to have that conversation in the checkout lane.
Don’t Respond With “Don’t Worry”
Despite their intentions, parents can do a lot of damage when they respond to a child’s question about a heavy topic with, “Don’t worry.” Be honest: When has that response ever worked on you? It sends the message that the things they worry about are insignificant and not worth discussing.
Instead, bypass the phrase completely and say, “I understand why that would bother/concern/scare you. Here’s the deal …” Then move to the next steps of the conversation. Hopefully, the things you say next will help lessen their worry.
Answer Honestly, Briefly & Simply
Once you know what your child is concerned about, alleviate their concerns directly with language they understand.
If they’re scared that an earthquake will knock down their home, explain that you don’t live in a place where earthquakes happen and that they are safe. Or, if you do live in an earthquake-prone area, explain that your family has a plan if something like that happens and mom and dad have it under control. The goal is to make your child feel safe without overwhelming them with information that doesn’t directly address their fears.
And just because the topic at hand is complicated doesn’t mean your words have to be. Use simple language to explain the situation. If your child is asking about a shooting, say, “Someone used a gun to hurt people.” If they’re asking about a robbery, tell them, “Someone stole that person’s car just like someone took your lunchbox at school last year.”
Be Compassionate When Talking About Others
In uncomfortable situations, it’s easy to cut the conversation short by generalizing or blaming one person or group of people. For example:
- “That lady is homeless because she made poor decisions with her money.”
- “Evil people from one country decided to take things that weren’t theirs, and now they’re fighting over it.”
Do some soul searching and catch your own biases. (And don’t feel ashamed when you find some. Use this as an opportunity to overcome them!) Avoid using ethnicity, sexual identity, weight, or socioeconomic status to “explain away” the difficult situation your child is asking about. Instead, use it as an opportunity to talk and ask questions that encourage compassion.
- “Sometimes things happen to people that make them lose all their money. Then they can’t afford to live in a house or an apartment. Wouldn’t that be scary?”
- “Two countries are fighting, and it’s making lots of moms, dads, and kids run away so they don’t have to fight, too. Isn’t that sad?”
Follow these conversations up by talking about the people who are trying to make difficult situations better. This shows your child that things aren’t helpless and that normal people — just like them — can make a difference.
- “Did you know there are places where you can donate clothes and help serve food to people who don’t have homes? Would you want to volunteer at a place like that sometime?”
- “There is a family here in town who had to run away from their home because of a war. Would you like to go play with their kids sometime and share your toys so they have something to play with?”
Admit When You Don’t Know
Kids are great at keeping their parents humble. If you don’t know enough about a topic to answer your child’s basic concerns, admit it.
“We often feel that, as parents, we always have to have the answer in the moment,” said Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop. “And the thing is, we don’t. And that’s OK. We’re still good parents.”
Go to the library and look for books on the topic, talk to a teacher or other adult who could help you with an answer, or do your own research and promise your child to follow back up with them soon. If you do need the time to come up with an answer, make sure to go ahead and …
Let Your Child Know They Are Safe & Loved
Oftentimes, when your child is asking about a scary thing on the news, what they’re really asking is, “Am I safe?”
As many times as you have a conversation with your child about a difficult topic, always close your talk with the reassurance that you as mom or dad are there to take care of them and to make sure nothing bad happens to your family. Also, remind them that community helpers are also there to help when bad things unexpectedly happen.
Read a Book
Little Sunshine’s Playhouse always promotes using story and books to talk about any topic with their kids. Here is a list for you to consider when it comes to discussing difficult subjects.
- “Saturday at the Food Pantry” by Diane O’Neill
- “A Place to Stay” by Erin Gunti
- “The Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt de la Pena
- “On Our Street” by Dr. Jillian Roberts
If those books aren’t discussing the difficult subject you’re looking for, the American Library Association also has a list that might be helpful. The youngest age range is for grades K-2, but many of the books are applicable for preschoolers.
Don’t Forget Self-Care
Remembering self-care is especially important if the difficult issue you’re talking about with your child is something you are walking through as a family. A death, a crime, or a national tragedy provides you with the opportunity to mirror for your child how to get help in tough times. For example, if someone close to your family has died, show your kids that you’re sad so they know it’s okay to be sad, too. Reach out for help to show your kids how important outside support is during difficult times.
Seeking professional help is a good idea for parents, too. Counselors, mental health professionals, and therapists are more accessible than ever. Whether it’s as a family or just for you, find someone who can help you talk through the big problems you’re facing.
No one can escape difficulty, big sadness, or creeping levels of anxiety — not even kids. Thankfully, as parents, you can guide your family through hard conversations and difficult times with some forethought and a supportive community.