Talking to Children About Difficult Topics

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One of the most entertaining everyday occurrences at The International Preschools are the many “sound bites” that children share with their teachers.  Children provide unique yet innocent insights and observations about the world around them on a daily basis, from a trip that they will be taking with their families to a gaggle of puppies that they saw frolicking in Central Park.  As teachers, parents, caregivers, and friends, we are happy to engage in these little conversations.

Sometimes, with both parents and teachers, these conversations can take on a more serious tone.  Topics such as death, divorce, moving to a new house or school, or even the addition of a new baby can bring up worries and questions in young children.  And, in the world that we live in today, the addition of terrorist attacks close to home can further exacerbate the internal fears within children.

Fear and anxiety are difficult for adults to express at times, let alone children.  A child will rarely, if ever, be able to tell you that he/she is feeling anxious, and on top of that, he/she will most likely not be able to tell you why he/she feels that way.  These feelings can come to the surface in different ways in preschoolers, such as having trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, or trouble separating from a caregiver or parent.

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The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside encourages children to talk about their feelings and what is bothering them.

Here are some actions you can take to assist your children in dealing with difficult topics:

  • Limit media exposure.  When toddlers and preschool-aged children view images of chaos, destruction, or violence, they will worry that these events are happening close to home.  Children at this age do not have a good sense of “proximity;” they take in the world around them as if it is happening right outside of their door.
  • If they don’t see something, don’t say something.  It is best not to introduce a topic such as terror attacks if your child has had no exposure (either directly or through media) to these events.  Your child may have no idea what is occurred in Chelsea, or about the train accident in Hoboken, or the terror attacks in France.  Unless your child has been exposed to the topic or he/she brings it up, it is best to keep discussions amongst adults.
  • Listen to their questions, and be reassuring.  Older children might have questions, and that’s okay.  Allow them to ask the questions, and do not be afraid to answer with an “I don’t know.”  The most important thing is, although you can’t guarantee that these events will never happen again, you will always protect them and do everything you can to keep them safe.  Let them know that.
  • Use books and age-appropriate television shows as a springboard for discussions with preschoolers.  For topics such as an impending move, divorce, or even a dispute with peers, a theme-related book is a wonderful and effective way to start a conversation about a difficult topic.  Both books and age-appropriate television shows provide a visual source for the storytelling.  Parents can introduce a topic that their child has been exposed to (i.e. the death of a pet) by reading a book about the topic, and then follow up by asking questions about what was read.  (i.e. How did the story make you feel? What could the little boy’s parents do to help him/her feel better?)

For additional resources on this topic, click on the links below.

CBS News Article – How to Talk to Children About Terrorism

Children’s Books About Death

Scholastic.com – Books Dealing with Difficult Topics


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