This article was originally published in May 2009, in the midst of the swine flu worries on the news. And while swine flu isn't the same as the tsunami devastation in Japan, many of the worries and questions from our children are the same. We thought this might be a good time to repeat this important information.
Swine flu. It's been on the news, in conversation, everywhere. Schools had to bring it up to explain why it's so important to wash hands and use hand sanitizer. So there was no way my daughters would miss it.
My older daughter is a bit of a worrier, but my younger one lets these things bypass her, on the whole. Every now and again, though, she seems fine, until suddenly she isn't, such as afraid to go to bed and we have to talk her worries out of her.
Despite our best efforts to protect them, children do catch wind of scary and bad events, and whether it's health, such as swine flu, or weather, such as a hurricane, or a family member's divorce, or anything else worrisome, it's important as parents to decide the best way to handle it.
For me this means having some tips in my back pocket, and evaluating which ones to pull out. I'll share a few personal stories and advice I've gotten from trusted experts to demonstrate what helps our family.
1. Do you need to tell the whole truth? Or will a reassurance do?
Swine flu is largely out of our control, as are acts of nature such as hurricanes. Nevertheless, both have been a part of our lives in the last year. A little over six months ago, we had to evacuate our family for weeks when a huge hurricane struck directly at our town. Our home suffered damage, and some homes in our neighborhood were destroyed completely. For months, the landscape of our town looked different as debris littered the water and roads, collapsed houses were abandoned, and large government and disaster relief trucks were everywhere.
This was a time for the whole truth. I admitted a hurricane hit our town, and had possibly damaged our house. My seven year old wanted to go to the house to see, but the four year old did not.It reassured our seven year old to see her home and things still there, albeit damaged, and we talked about buying wood, hiring helpers, and rebuilding the portion of our house that was damaged. It helped her to work on a plan to get things back to safe and normal. But she had to see for herself. My four year old was satisfied to see a picture I took of the house to know it was there, and mostly okay. She needed little reassurance other than a promise that we were fixing the house and everything would be fine.
In that case, we were living through the tough times, being directly affected by it. It wasn't a "thing out there that was happening" it was a "thing that was happening to us." In that case, I needed to be open with my children with the hope that if they had questions or concerns, they would tell me.
Swine flu isn't happening to us, but it is out there around us, and my children have heard about it. They've also asked about it. In this case, I erred on the side of "protecting them." In my opinion, there is no need for them to know that is has been serious sometimes and some people have died. based on their personalities and young ages, this is beyond their ability to handle, other than by just getting very scared.
So on this topic, I took a reassuring tack. "Swine flu is a flu, but it's contagious like any kind of sick, so let's just be careful to wash hands and not share drinks and not put hands or toys in mouths, okay?"
My older daughter wanted to know what happened if you got swine flu.
"You feel really sick, with a fever, snotty nose, sore throat, coughing, yuck, who wants to get sick that way? So let's just be careful and try to not get sick," I explained, and asked if they wanted to know anything else.
My younger daughter wanted to know if you had to go to the doctor and get a shot. I told her maybe, if you got sick.
"I'll wash my hands and not put them in my mouth, Mommy!" she promised.
I assured them it was going to be okay, and we were healthy people who were taking care.
At this point, swine flu is something they know about but aren't worrying about personally. That's what I hoped.
2. What is it that the children really want to know and need to hear?
One time my daughter asked about how babies are made. I nearly launched into a technical explanation well beyond my daughter's age-level (3). Then, luckily, I remembered some great advice a fellow mom gave me, "When it's a tough topic, try answering a question with a question, like, 'Why do you want to know?' or 'What do you want to know about specifically?'"
As it turned out, all my daughter needed was to know if babies came from people or clay. "People," I told her, 'Anything else?" "Nope," she said, happily, and skipped off.
I'm fortunate in my friends, especially when they are Devra Renner, MSW and Aviva Pflock, certified parent educator and child development specialist. These wonderful ladies are Parenting Consultants providing training and consultation services for families and organizations all around the world. They run a great Web site and blog at Parentopia, and also published a fantastic book titled Mommy Guilt.
A while back, Devra wisely wrote:
"But before you begin a conversation, do consider "Is this a conversation we need to have now? Later? Never? Soon?" and "Is this a one shot convo, or will I need to revisit this more as my offspring get older?" Often parents get worked up about "missing" a teachable moment. For most of us, we've got years of parenting ahead of us, and many opportunities to talk with our kids! Talking about our values, ideas and principles isn't always easy, but it may help you to relax a bit about it when you consider these conversations as ongoing and not just one time events during the course of your parenthood."
It's so true, often we over-answer our kids, or miss what it is they are really seeking. This advice is spot-on, whether it's about values or tough topics.
In general, with my children, I find that whether it's a news type story, such as swine flu, or something that happened to someone we know, such as divorce or a car accident, their main concern is always, "Will this happen to us?"
I don't feel comfortable making any guarantees about things I can't control---such as car accidents or diseases---so on that count, I offer reassurances that our family is taking care and we will be okay. On things I can control---such as divorce or moving---I reassure the children that we are sticking together and Daddy and I are not divorcing or moving.
3. Having the conversation, ending it, and keeping the lines open---how do I do that?
To reiterate, in general, children want to understand a tough topic as it relates to them. So how do you explain without making your child think it will happen to him or her?
"When children are trying to wrap their brains around something difficult, it may be easier for them to understand if they can be told of story from your own life, or that of someone else they have heard about or know, which relates to the situation. Keeping the story age appropriate and including familiar person, place or thing may make the concept less scary, less overwhelming, etc."
I agree with that completely, and often include a reassurance, by pointing out how I got through the hard event or am okay now.
It's easy to make a hard talk too much for a child, so I try to keep my sentences short, and encourage my child to participate, whether it's to add her thoughts, to ask a question for clarification, or to tell me she's had enough.
Devra also wrote:
"The key is to keep the conversation open, honest, age appropriate and infuse humor whenever possible. And when any one's had enough talk on a topic? Keep things open ended by offering "We can talk about it more later" and be agreeable that either person can bring it up again in the future."
That's the most important thing to me: letting my kids know they can talk to me about anything that concerns them, even if we need to talk about it more than once.
But I can also tell when my older daughter is starting to obsess about an issue. At that point, I cut off the flow of details and information, and resort to reassurance, and redirection.
My children don't live in the dark (or in a vacuum) and they've certainly had to deal with some tough topics, but with some help from friends, and great advice from professionals, we've managed to handle the tough topics tactfully. This way, the children get to talk, get the information and reassurance they need, and move on.
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