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How to Talk With Your Children

How to Talk With Your Children
In light of the recent terrorist attacks against the United States, parents are now left wondering how to communicate with their children about the incidents that occurred. Michael Smalley, a marriage and family therapist in Branson, Mo. (for more information about Michael, click here), and Pam Vredevelt, a licensed professional counselor in Gresham, Ore. share their advice.

First and foremost, recognize the developmental age and personality types of your children. A preschooler needs much different information than a teenager. If your child is introverted, serious, and introspective, he/she will not have the same reaction as your extraverted, “happy-go-lucky” child.

Second, don’t project your own fears to your children. Your children are looking to you to see how you respond. Michael shares that his sister called him and was visibly upset about the attacks. He encouraged her to put her daughter in another room so she could watch a video, then he talked with her and encouraged her. Adults need to process their feelings with other adults – not with children or in their presence.

Michael encourages parents to recognize that age largely determines the amount of information their children can handle. Here are his recommendations:

  • Toddlers/Preschoolers: Children this age will not understand the events that occurred. Don’t try to explain it to them. At the same time, it is important that they not have access to the television reports and images that are being shown.
  • Kindergarten – 4th Grade: Be cautious. Ask them to share what they know and what they’ve heard. Don’t give them any more information than they need. Be sure to explain to them that they’re not in imminent danger.
  • 5th – 8th Grade: Be real with them – but be balanced. Recognize that if you’re in an area where the one of the attacks occurred, taking safety precautions may still be necessary. By the same token, though, don’t take unnecessary precautions if they’re not required, as this may needlessly frighten children.
  • High School (and some Junior High kids): This is a learning opportunity for them. Monitor your children as to whether or not they’re capable of handling what they see on television, though. Talk openly with them and validate their fears and concerns.

Pam shares some general guidelines for talking with your children:

  • Let your child take the lead in talking about what they have heard and how they feel about it. The goal is to discover what their thoughts are and understand what is going on in their mind about the tragedy.
  • Keep the discussion open with questions like “What other things have you heard about what happened? Is there more?” Trying to interject your thoughts and feelings into the conversation prematurely will close them down.
  • Comment on what you notice in their non-verbal communication. “I can see that this is troubling to you. What are you feeling?” Help them clarify and label their own feelings. Validate those feelings with statements with comments like: "It makes sense that you feel ... angry, scared, sad, etc. I have those feelings, too.” They need to know it is acceptable to have these feelings.
  • Try to remain calm and matter-of-fact as your child discusses these tragedies. Flooding them with a lot of your own emotional energy can make matters worse for them. The idea is to be a container, or receptacle for their emotions. This will provide a sense of security.
  • Limit television viewing of the events. Too much repeated exposure to pictures of the disasters will heighten anxiety.
  • Take the opportunity to discuss your Christian beliefs with them, such as “Things like this happen when people don't have a personal relationship with God. Without Jesus, people make bad choices and hurt innocent people. As a family we need to pray for the victims, and for our enemies. We can pray that God will expose the darkness with His light and bring to justice those who have inflicted these evils. We can pray for our President, that God will protect him and give him a spirit of wisdom and revelation to lead our nation at this critical time.”
  • Reassurance is felt by children as they are listened to, validated, hugged, and when we pray with them, and give our anxieties and burdens to God.