We reckon you’ve been there. Sipping your coffee, stalking people on Facebook and Instagram, munching on snacks, and Boom! You get the question bomb: “Mommyyyyyy – how did I get into your tummy?”
Big innocent eyes. You are gripped with panic.
Just. Oh. No.
Or you may be familiar with this flavor question bomb – “Hey Dad – how come Uncle Jack never visits? Why do you hide in the wardrobe when your mommy comes?”
Then there’s “What if my teeth melt in the sun and I can’t eat anymore?”
Well.. OK.. some logic can be applied here. You can sometimes say with absolute confidence that “It’s Ok Sweetie, that won’t happen”.
But “What if you and daddy get divorced?”
Tricky, because, sometimes the questions are about things that there is an actual chance of happening.
Here are some suggestions for dealing with the real tricky ones:
Find out what your child wants to know
This might seem obvious but as adults we are inclined to elaborate unnecessarily. So keep it really simple – what was the exact question your child just asked? Focus only on that information, you needn’t add more. Indeed it’s better not to, they may get confused. As they develop their ability to retain and understand information they’ll ask for more – trust that. They know what they want to know! They will ask only for what they want.
Find out what they already know
Younger children are unable to differentiate between reality and fantasy in the same way older kids can, or we can. So what they hear in films will feel real. What they see on games, videos, other media – it will all feel real. What they hear on the news will also feel real, and possibly very, very frightening. They aren’t able to distinguish between bombings in Syrian schools and the threat of a bomb in the local playground.
Ask straight out:
What did you hear? Where did you hear it? and (really important!) how do you feel about it?
In a situation where they are freaked out having heard the news then what you will hear quickly if you stick to these guideline is
“I heard on the TV that kids were killed. I’m scared”. Sometimes they’ll say the last part (“I’m scared”). Sometimes their big, round eyes will tell you that.
This gives you the opportunity to reassure them of their safety. Keep it simple. If you start rambling statistics and odds of bombings in your community, you’ll lose the safety element. If you focus on their thoughts and feelings you are better able to respond in a way that they’ll experience as helpful.
Remember: What soothes you as an adult is quite different to what will soothe your child.
Engage in conversations
Children might start out with what seems like a really easy question to negotiate. Soon after it though might come the curveball. And our first instinct is often “DUCK!!!”
Like “Hey Dad, did Mom tell you that Sarah’s parents are getting a divorce?”
Well, that’s easy right? It’s a “yes” or a “no”. No need to elaborate. Remember, the question from a child is a literal one and a yes or no covers it. Done.
But then comes ” Sooooo… where will Sarah live? Don’t they love her? WILL YOU EVER GET DIVORCED??”
The temptation to avoid will be big: “Oh silly billy – that won’t happen!Don’t worry!”
*goes back to Facebook to look busy.
The younger your child is, the more likely it is that he/she is not really concerned about Sarah. We don’t develop true empathy until well into our teens. What they are really asking for with these questions is reassurance about their place in your life.
So maybe try this: “Sweetheart, I don’t know Sarah’s family well, but I’m sure they will figure out a way to make it as easy as possible for her because they will love her just the same, even when they are divorced. I know this because nothing could change how we feel about you!”
Know your emotional triggers
Sometimes kids seem to find a way to ask questions that really trigger us and we just don’t know how best to answer – or even whether to answer. This might be because they’ve hit on a personal nerve or indeed a whole bundle of raw ones. These are the questions we can’t manage ourselves.
“Mom, why do you not talk to uncle Pete?”
Give yourself permission to take time to think of an answer. “I want to tell you the answer but right now I need more time to think of the most helpful way to do that”.
Or it might be simpler “I don’t know – maybe I will call him!”
If you find that your child highlights an issue for you that triggers you emotionally then allow yourself to get help with that. Talk to someone – a friend, a partner, a therapist. Get as comfy as you can with this stuff so that you are better equipped to deal with out of the blue questions from your kids. And remember – for them it’s a really simple request for information. There is no need to soul search with your child!
Trust the value of your relationship with your child
Everything you do teaches your child how to deal with the same situation. How to respond, regardless of the actual answer, is a valuable lesson. Even if that response is “I don’t know, but I’ll try and find out”. Trust that your relationship with your child will withstand you figuring out how to talk to them about things that are difficult to talk about. Trust that in doing so, you are teaching them patience and understanding and that it’s OK to not know everything.
Be mindful of the media
Referring back to the piece about reality and fantasy, be conscious of how your child might be perceiving the media and what it might be teaching them. It’s generally wise to limit screen-time, particularly if what’s being spoken about is traumatic. Children are more vulnerable to vicarious trauma than we are, because they make everything about themselves in their little heads. Remember that they insert themselves into every story they hear – this will help you to remember to censor those stories!
Be mindful also of what you say to your friends in front of them – they might look like they’re engrossed elsewhere, but they’re always listening. imagine their cute little ears as bigger and constantly flapping!!
Repeat, repeat, repeat!
As they develop, children understand things at different levels. This is why we are asked what seem like the same questions over and over again. The thing is, the answer they understood at 4 is no longer good enough at 5. They now need more. More again at 6, 8, 13 and so on. So we need to avoid whining “Jeez I explained this to you already!”
It is a layered process. Some questions will reappear into adulthood – particularly relationship based ones. Some information just isn’t appropriate for younger kids, but is crucial for older ones. You are the expert when it comes to your child and sensing what fits.
Try not to be anxious about providing the ‘right’ answer to tough questions. Sometimes, there is none. Your willingness to listen to your child, not dismiss them, and be honest about not knowing everything will teach them a lot of basic “How-To-Be-A-Human-Being” skills!
And good luck!