Written by: Dr. Charryse Johnson, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
On September 11, I was teaching at a school about 30 minutes south of presidential Camp David. A seemingly normal day abruptly became one of history’s most defining moments.
Telling the children about the attack on the Pentagon was one of the most challenging subjects I have ever initiated. Subjects such as war and terrorism are difficult to discuss with children. As adults, we may still be working to comprehend or accept the reality of what’s happening.
As the Ukraine crisis plays out on a global front, there can be mixed opinions on the benefit of addressing this topic with children.
Children and teens will often take cues on how to respond from the adults in their lives. It is important for them to know they can share their concerns, ask questions, and be given open and honest answers. Avoiding critical conversations with children can increase their anxiety and lead them to search for answers that may further intensify their emotions.
Ideally, the central goal is to Listen, Connect, and Protect the nature and understanding children have about war. Children and teens have a core set of perceptions, priorities, and values that evolve over time. Listen to their needs around the subject, connect with their development needs, and help protect them from experiencing unnecessary distress.
Here are some suggestions on how to navigate the conversation:
KEEP THE CONVERSATION SAFE FOR EVERYONE.
When possible, take advance time to explore the balance between your own fears and what is beneficial to be discussed. Children will sense your emotion and tensions around the topic. It is valuable and important for them to have a sense of how you are being impacted, but not at the expense of creating a safe space for them to share. If you are too emotional or passionate in your responses, children may filter and hide their concerns in attempt to make you feel better.
Let children know you want them to openly share their feelings and concerns and ask them to tell you if they are feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable with the conversation. This is a powerful way for children to learn they have a degree of choice when navigating difficult discussions, and it is ok to pause and return to the discussion at another time. Coming into the conversation with a predetermined outcome that ignores your child’s boundaries can be harmful.
DETERMINE WHAT IS ALREADY KNOWN.
Primarily allow children ages 6 -8 to initiate based on inquiry. The concrete nature of young children can become easily overwhelmed with processing the magnitude and complexity of war. Take your child’s lead and if they ask questions, provide simple and direct answers.
Also, keep in mind children who engage in diverse peer situations, have access to social media, or older siblings will be more likely to overhear and have outside conversations about war. To help determine what is already known allow children and teens to share without interrogation. Active listening with small moments of inquiry is the most ideal course of interaction.
LISTEN AND PROVIDE REASSURANCE.
It is important to listen to hear and not to respond. Active listening involves observing the verbal and nonverbal messages children and teens are displaying. As you broach the discussion of war, offer your undivided attention, and sit in a posture that demonstrates you are listening.
Then provide appropriate feedback by communicating what you heard. Providing children with reassurance does not mean telling them “Everything will be ok; you don’t have to worry”. Reassurance involves acknowledgement and where appropriate asking, “How can I show you I’ve heard and understand?”. Your role is not to fix their concerns or control the direction of their emotions. It is to provide open and honest answers that help children trust you will be present and understanding of their changing needs. This can be communicated through language such as “Thank you for letting me know how you feel, I will always be here if you want to talk”.
DON’T ASSUME CHILDREN CAN NOT UNDERSTAND.
The reasoning mind in children develops across the life span, but do not assume children can’t understand. Focus on themes that will apply and resonate with your children. Assuming they cannot understand discussions about war, can invalidate their concerns and overlook their needs. Initiating age-appropriate dialogue helps arm children with confidence during uncertainty.
It is natural to understand and want to protect your children from threatening situations. Yet, successfully traversing difficult conversations builds the foundation for years to come. Recent research reports one of the primary barriers to student mental health is 75% of students prefer to reach out to friends instead of adults. Students as young as 10 years old report frequently feeling adults minimize the significance of their thoughts and don’t provide them with enough helpful information.
USE LANGUAGE THAT IS CONCRETE AND FACTUAL.
The concept of know your audience also works when talking with children. While you engage in conversation consider factors such as your child’s age, temperament, culture, and general depth of understanding. Adjust for children who have family in the military and may need to explore a unique line of conversation.
Use language that is factual and clearly answers the question. Try to refrain from communicating through metaphors and providing examples that may create further disruption. Throughout your conversation, stop and make sure your children understand. Each time you end a conversation, consider how you would answer the question, “Does this situation necessitate more conversation?”
Critical conversations are a growth experience for us all. It is ok not to have all the answers, but make every effort to be a voice of comfort and clarity for the children in your life.
Dr. Charryse Johnson, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Dr. Charryse Johnson is an author, speaker, and mental health consultant whose work focuses on the intersection of integrative wellness, neuroscience, and mental health. She is the founder of Jade Integrative Counseling and Wellness an integrative therapy practice where personal values, the search for meaning, and the power of choice are the central focus. Dr.Johnson works with clients and organizations across the nation and has an extensive background and training in education, crisis and trauma, neuroscience, and identity development.