As refugee children cross the United States border en masse, my own kids are seeing bits and pieces of the news story on the television and Internet. Should I talk to them about this event—and, if so, how? I believe that’s a question many parents are asking, and it's a question they ask themselves often.
Initially, I was hesitant about sharing too much information with my young children, but an unexpected event changed my mind. Seven years ago, I was attacked and robbed by a man while entering a Target store—right in front of them. While we were waiting for the police to arrive, my three-year-old, who was in my arms, leaned toward my ear and whispered, “He was a 'don’t know,' mom.”
A week earlier my children and I had watched The Safe Side: Stranger Safety, a goofy video starring a character named Safe Side Super Chick, about how children can stay safe around strangers. I realized immediately that, because of this video, my children already had some language they could use to talk about the attack.
At the time, I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing by introducing my three- and five-year-olds to the Safe Side Super Chick. I wondered if knowing that people might abduct them from a store or from their yard in broad daylight would make them fearful and uneasy—a more harm than good scenario. But in reality, my children were already hearing about stranger danger at preschool; the video and ensuing conversations gave them what they needed to talk about this subject and express their concerns.
"When parents do not respond to their children’s questions with openness and a willingness to discuss, children may read from the silence that this is a topic that is taboo."
After our Target experience, I was amazed at how well my children could talk about violence, how perceptive they were, how capable they were in voicing their fears. When my son started hiding behind my legs every time he saw a black man—the man who attacked me was black—I used this as an opportunity to discuss prejudice, racial profiling, and white privilege. On a basic level, he understood the concepts.
On Martin Luther King Day, when my five-year-old daughter asked me how Martin Luther King had died, I told her that somebody had shot him. She and I talked about the kind of hate that drove his assassination and that drives other kinds of violence.
I realize that sometimes children aren’t ready to discuss confronting topics—that knowing about them could cause distress—and I'm not advocating the introduction of subjects they clearly aren't ready for. But not engaging on issues affecting our children poses a much larger risk, especially since parents aren’t always aware of everything their children are exposed to.
“When parents are open to questions about difficult topics early on, it is likely as their children grow older and the subjects they want to talk about become more difficult, they will open up to their parents,” says Dr. Marietta Collins, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University. It follows that children may view their parents as unapproachable if they put off their questions, setting up a future dynamic where these same children aren't in the habit of discussing pressing issues.
In another scenario, children may view a topic that deeply affects the family as off-limits, something others wish to hide or deny, setting up unresolved issues for them going into adulthood. “When parents do not respond to their children’s questions with openness and a willingness to discuss, children may read from the silence that this is a topic that is taboo,” says Sarah Juul, assistant professor of Psychology at Emory University. “It may leave them feeling confused and overwhelmed with their own feelings related to the subject.” And not talking to children about certain subjects sets them up to learn out-of-bounds information from their peers, which often leads to misinformation or social consequences associated with a lack of follow-up around discussions parents haven’t mediated.
New York University’s Child Study Center has created a bank of resources for having discussions with our children about difficult subject matter. Similarly, I developed some strategies shortly after my children and I were attacked; I still rely on them today, seven years later.
When discussing something difficult with your children, take the lead from them. If they want to talk about something, they will ask, and if they ask, it means they are ready. Test the waters to see if they’re seeking information. "Do you want to hear more?" is a simple, straightforward question. If they don't, they will let you know.
Collins stresses the importance of following a child’s lead and talking to children about a topic in a developmentally appropriate manner. Approach the topic in steps and let your children lead you to what they want to know next by asking for their input. Build the language necessary to discuss a new subject together. Safe Side Super Chick, for example, calls people our children don’t know “don’t knows.” My son and daughter often refer to our attack as “that thing that happened at Target.” As a result, I refer to it in the same way. You don't have to be an expert, have ready solutions to their questions, or model the perfect vocabulary around a subject—just follow the cues your children communicate to you.
In order to learn more about your children’s perspectives around a subject, don’t correct them if they misunderstand a concept or an event. Instead, ask them to explain where they are coming from, and ask questions to promote deeper thinking. When you have discomfort, don't assume your children do as well; often, children learn discomfort from their parents. Try to convey information in an unbiased manner, presenting many sides to an argument and then communicating why you believe what you believe, acknowledging that they are free to believe something else. Do research if you are having trouble seeing the other side, and seek a counselor’s help for family discussions if you feel too close to any given subject.
Most importantly, make sure your children know that they can always come to you to talk, no matter the subject. If you are shaken up by something and need some time to regain composure, it's OK to tell your children that you need some time to digest their questions. Propose a time or date when you can revisit the subject together. "Mom's not ready to talk about this yet, but I will be in a few hours. Can we talk again before bed?" Remember, you know your children better than anybody else and, as a result, are one of their best and safest resources.