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Dr. Harvey Karp on how to talk to kids about scary events



8 tips you need to know

Talking to kids about scary stuff

From COVID to climate to the catastrophic war in Ukraine, your child may be picking up the vibes of your heightened sense of stress. Perhaps they've caught a glimpse of some photos or heard a snippet of your phone calls or the news that mentioned scary things about the bombings or kids dying. No matter how your child caught wind of some scary things, you'll want to be ready to help them make some sense of current events…and their/your big feelings. 

But here's the thing, unless your young child asks you about what's going on—or shows signs of worry or stress over the events of the world—you want to be very thoughtful about how/if you discuss huge dangers that are outside our immediate control, like the conflict in the Ukraine with them. Your job? Pay attention and respond to their feelings/worries with reassurance and optimism to balance the anxiety they sense. Here's how:

Listen and use "door openers"

When you notice that your child seems preoccupied or worried about something (big or small), it's important to tune into what they're saying and to respond in a way that shows you're truly listening and happy that they trust they you enough to share their scary feelings with you. One way to show your interest is with "door openers." These are small gestures or comments you make in response to your child mentioning something that's bothering them. For example, you may furrow or raise your eyebrows, lean in a little, nod along with what your kiddo says, or say something like "I see," "uh-huh," or "tell me more…" as they speak. You can also share with them what you're observing: "Hmmm…sounds like you've been thinking about that. Your face is showing me some little worry wrinkles." This gives opens the door for your child to feel the safety needed to talk about stressors that may be simmering just under the surface.

Go slowly

Once you have a sense of your child's thoughts and feelings, don't rush to reassure them or to solve the problem. When you immediately dismiss their worries as "impossible" and pat them on the head saying, "don't worry" you shut the door on them expressing their concerns and you are accidentally teaching them that you are not someone with whom they can share their deepest thoughts and feelings. 

Start out by gently asking a couple of leading questions, like "Sometimes kids get worried when they hear people talking on TV or their friends say something. I was wondering if that ever happened to you?" Or, "Sometimes parents say things that can sound funny, but sometimes we say things that can sound a little scary…have we ever said things that sounded a little scary?"

If they already know about the war or any scary event in question you can confirm things honestly, without lying, but also without exposing your child to the intense, stark light of the adult truth. After you find out a bit more, it's best to try to use simple, straightforward language and explanations. ("Yes, they are using rockets. Rockets hurt buildings…and people, too. And, you know that it's not nice to do that.") And remember, worry about, say war, the COVID-19 pandemic, or a natural disaster often stems from feeling a lack of control. 

While you can't offer your child a sense of control about world events, you can offer them the next best thing to ease anxiety: A caring listener, simple information, and some practical things to do to help balance out their worry (like, turning out the lights when they leave the room, if they are worried about climate change).


Be okay with not having the answers

Not every question your child has needs to be answered at the moment. If you're unsure what to say, try something like, "That's a really good question. I'm not sure of the answer, but I am sure of one thing, Mama loves you and will protect you" or "Let's think on that a little more and see if we can figure it out together tomorrow." And, truth be told, admitting that you need to look up information—and then doing just that together when appropriate—shows your child that they can rely on you for help, which buoys trust.

Mind your body language

It's not just your words that have power. Little kids are really good at picking up on what we feel. They can see worry in our eyes and tenseness in our faces. If your child asks if you were crying or if you're upset, don't deny your feelings. Instead, you might say something like, "I'm feeling very sad right now. Do you feel sad sometimes?" This invites your child to express how they're feeling, too. And use your body language to reassure…that's the power of a hug, sitting close by, and getting your eye level a little below their eye level when they are telling you about something upsetting (this makes them feel less judged and more in control).

Reassure your child

As you discuss what's going on, take some small steps to calm your child's fears. You might reassure your kiddo that you're doing lots of smart things to keep them safe. For instance, show your child that you locked the strong doors and windows or point out how sturdy your home is. You can highlight people who are bravely working together for change, too. Also remind your child that this is not their problem to solve.

READ MORE: How to talk to your kids about domestic terrorism

Offer tools

Teach your toddler or big kid the power of magic breathing. This is not only a great de-stressor, it helps children feel more in control of their big feelings. Try sitting in a comfy chair and announcing to your tot that you're going to do some magic breathing, "This helps me feel better when my emotions are big." Next, uncross your legs, put your hands in your lap, drop your shoulders, and let the teeny muscles around your mouth and eyes get soft and relaxed. Now slowly inhale through your nose (silently count to five) while raising one hand, then exhale through your nose (for another five), letting your hand slowly drop. (Make a little whooshy sound as the air flows in and out.). Eventually, say "Come breathe with me!" and you can lead your child through a couple of two-counts-in/two-counts-out breaths, using your whooshy sound and hand motion to guide them. (Some kids like to call them "balloon breaths.") It may take a dozen tries for your kiddo to get the hang of it, but soon they'll learn how to use this amazing self-soothing skill anytime they're scared, hurt, mad, or frustrated. It's a self-control tool your child can use forever.

Control the environment

Though you can't protect your child from all of the harsh realities of the world, you do have control over what your child hears and sees while in your home. For example, turn off the TV or radio if the news is violent or upsetting. And if you do have the news on at home, make sure you are around to monitor and understand what your child is seeing or hearing, answer their questions, or turn it off.

Be flexible

As with all parenting, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. When talking to a very upset child, consider your child's emotional level, their temperament, and your specific circumstances before diving into a big talk. In other words, modify your tone and words to match where your child is at. And know that, no matter what, when you have these tough talks and truly listen, you immediately help your child feel heard, respected, and understood…which are the most crucial things.

This part of parenting takes some practice, but if you start from a place of good listening and allowing your child to have a safe place to talk—without immediately being told not to worry—your relationship will grow even stronger and deeper.

Dr. Harvey Karp, is a pediatrician and best-selling author of the #1 parent guides Happiest Baby on the Block (celebrating its 20th year in publication) & Happiest Toddler on the Block; CEO of Happiest Baby, Inc.; and creator of SNOO, the world's most awarded and safest baby bed, now available for purchase or rental. 




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