How to Discuss Stressful Situations with Kids
by Talia Filippelli, LCSW, CHHC, CPT, Founder of Starr Therapy View Bio
Talia is the owner and founder of Starr Therapy in Hoboken, New Jersey. She is known for her solution-focused therapy approach and fearless mission to make seeing a therapist something that people brag about! She has been featured as a mental health expert on CBS and CNN, and was voted a "Top Kids Doc" by NJ Family Magazine for the past 8 years. She is also a Certified Holistic Health Coach and Certified Personal Trainer. To find out more information, check out www.StarrTherapy.com.
Children rarely say out loud, “Mom I’m anxious.” But there are signs that parents can look out for to see if their child might be suppressing emotions or feeling more anxious than they are able to articulate verbally.
- Physical complaints increase like headaches or stomach aches
- Irritable mood
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Increased clinginess to parents
- Saying they are scared for grandma or grandpa
Stressful times require an increase in communication. Kids look to their parents, caregivers and educators as a calming influence and most importantly for answers. When kids are overwhelmed, it can be a challenge for adults to help them understand and adapt to what is going on in their lives.
Here are five helpful tips on how to talk to kids about what’s happening.
Be honest: All conversations, regardless of a child’s age, should be honest, age-appropriate, and promote a sense of safety and security. Too many of us try to sugar-coat life’s realities because we can’t bear to see our kids upset. Trust me when I say that our kids are more resilient and adaptive than we give them credit for. And if you think they’re not, now is a good time to start cultivating those necessary life skills. When coronavirus is over, our kids will call upon the skills they develop now to get through future challenges.
Ask what they know so you can make the conversation age appropriate: Before answering questions, find out what your kids’ understanding is of coronavirus. What are their fears? Anxiety is always about the future, and it’s our job to be honest while providing a sense of safety and security. That may sound like a contradiction, but here’s an example of what you could be saying: “I’m not sure how long your school will be closed, but we will do our best to stay connected to your friends and teachers through video chat.”
Don’t expect to have all the answers: We want our kids to see us as a reliable and trustworthy place to get information. If you don’t know the answer to their questions, that’s okay. Help your kids find valid, age-appropriate information online by searching together on websites like the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH).
Validate, don’t minimize or disregard their feelings: When your child expresses worry, fear, or stress, validate it by saying, “Everyone feels a little scared/stressed/worried right now.” Resist the urge to say, “You’re fine. There’s nothing to worry about. Just forget about it!” This only makes our children feel misunderstood and alone in their experience - which will guarantee their fears grow.
Encourage imaginative play to help them work through their emotions: When children create imaginary worlds, the characters and plots often match their emotional states, helping them learn to express and regulate their feelings. This type of play allows kids to act out fear, anger, and frustration in a situation they can control, providing a much-needed emotional outlet. Not to mention that pretend play also nurtures creativity and builds vocabulary – skills that will serve them long after the crisis is over.