How to have difficult conversations with children
Read Time: 6 minutes
Rebecca Winters, PhD, assistant professor in BYU McKay School's Counseling Psychology and Special Education Department, teaches courses in school psychology and crisis management. Considering recent events in Uvalde, Texas and elsewhere, Winters offers the following message and provides tips for how to engage in difficult but necessary conversations with children.
The recent tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, has impacted children and families around the country. I join with you in grieving the loss of life that this devastating event has caused. Our hearts and our prayers are turned toward those who have been directly affected.
During times such as these, you may experience strong emotions that are difficult to process. Grief may encompass feelings of shock, sorrow, anger, frustration, confusion, disappointment, and many others. We trust in the plan of a loving Father in Heaven and take comfort in the healing power of the Atonement. However, even the Savior of the World mourned in response to the sorrows of this mortal life. We can learn from His example that it is natural and beneficial to take time to grieve. I encourage students and families to draw nearer to one another during this challenging time. Take a moment to pause and recognize any feelings you have about the recent acts of senseless violence. Explore what you need to move forward, whether that be finding an emotional outlet, seeking support, or taking action to promote school safety.
When addressing these events with children, the following tips are recommended by experts:
- Take time to talk. Children look to adults for information and guidance during times of stress. Look for clues that they want to talk, or check in with them to see if they would like to do so. Having an open line of communication can make it easier to initiate hard conversations.
- Make time for questions. Children may be hesitant to ask questions when they think adults are too busy or are perhaps grieving themselves. Be present with them and provide opportunities for them to ask questions and share concerns. Be patient, as it may take time for children to process their feelings enough to verbalize them. Support and validate their concerns and questions. Even if you don’t have a concrete answer, let them know you understand.
- Keep explanations developmentally appropriate. You may begin by asking children what they already know about the incident and tailor your discussion to their level of understanding. When talking with younger children, it is best to use simple but honest language and minimize the level of detail shared. If children are struggling to express their thoughts and feelings verbally, it can be helpful to use other tools, such as books, writing, art, or music. Let them know that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs and discuss how they can express their feelings appropriately.
- Balance discussions about tragedy with reassurances of safety. Help children recognize ways that their homes and schools are kept safe, and identify adults who are there to protect them. You may also wish to discuss the child’s role in maintaining safety, such as knowing safety plans and reporting any safety concerns to adults. These plans can help children feel a sense of control during times of distress.
- Observe children’s emotional functioning. Watch for any changes in the child’s behavior, sleep, appetite, or daily activities. Be mindful of past experiences with grief and trauma, which may increase their level of vulnerability. It is normal to see some amount of change in response to significant events, but if there are concerns that persist or have a more severe impact on functioning, please seek the help of a mental health professional.
- Identify things that bring your family joy. Talk together about simple pleasures and things you can look forward to—favorite activities, people, and events. Teach children to find joy by “look[ing] for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers said, and becoming helpers themselves. Engaging in meaningful service not only brings joy, but also helps empower children to make a positive impact on the world.
I pray that our Heavenly Father will bless us with increased light during this time of darkness. There is much we cannot fully understand, but by grounding ourselves in the gospel, we will be guided toward peace and healing.
Contact: Cindy Glad