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How to talk to your kids about difficult news

Amy Atkinson and her daughter Bryndi Atkinson put items on the porch at the home of Elizabeth Shelley on Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Logan, Utah. Hundreds of items were left at the house where the 5-year-old went missing, less than a block from where her body was found on Wednesday, May 29. Photo: Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal/AP

The makeshift memorial growing on the porch of the Logan home of murdered five-year-old Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Shelley is filled with candles, stuffed animals and the notes of a community in mourning – many from kids struggling with how to react to difficult news.

How to talk to your kids at a tough time

In an article entitled “How to talk to children about difficult news,” the American Psychological Association said trauma touches children on a regular basis no matter how much parents or teachers try and keep the “bad things away.”

“As much as adults may try to avoid difficult topics, children often learn or know when something sad or scary happens. If adults don’t talk to them about it, a child may overestimate what is wrong or misunderstand adults’ silence.  So, be the first to bring up the difficult topic. When parents tackle difficult conversations, they let their children know that they are available and supportive,” the article stated.

KSL-TV’s Alex Cabrero spoke with crisis workers at Logan Regional Medical Center to see what parents can do to help children understand, and deal with, the emotions they may be feeling.

Be open and honest, but not graphic

Crisis Worker Kira Bettinger said it’s important to talk to kids openly about what happened and understand what they are feeling, but she added, you don’t need to go into graphic detail about what happens.

She said it’s also important to watch kids and see if they’re showing any warning signs that they’re scared about what happened.

“Things like, kids become more irritable some anger issues may occur aggression that is normally not part of their behavior,” Bettinger said.

Bettinger said those warning signs can indicate kids are experiencing strong emotions that they don’t have the necessary tools to handle. She said it’s important to see what’s going on and assure them they are safe.

“Get a real idea of what they’re going through emotionally to best help them and reassure them they’re safe,” Bettinger said.

Make a plan

The APA writes, even before that type of conversation starts, it’s a good idea to have a plan and think beforehand about what you want to say. The group advises practicing in the mirror or running what you want to say by another adult.

Another important point, according to the APA, is to find a quiet moment to talk to your children. Whether it’s making dinner, sitting on the couch, or during a drive, finding that quiet time to let your children know that they are at the center of your attention and that you are listening is important.

Many times, experts say just spending time with your children can help them feel safe and secure and cared about. For younger kids, Common Sense Media says that “snuggling up and watching something cheery or doing something fun together may be more effective than logical explanations about probabilities.”

“Listen. Listen. And listen more…”

Every child is different and needs different things, Bettinger said, which is why the APA says one of the most critical parts of any conversation about something your child is struggling with or worried about is listening.

“Ask them ‘What have you heard about this?” And then listen. Listen. Listen. And listen more,'” the APA advises in its article.

Listening builds trust that shows your children you’re paying attention and care about what they are saying and what they are feeling, psychologists say. Common Sense Media also points out that it’s important to make sure that you don’t belittle their feelings.

Psychologists say it’s also important for you to tell the truth about what they’ve heard in the news — without being afraid to share your own feelings.

“They see you are human. They also get a chance to see that even though upset, you can pull yourself together and continue on.  Parents hear it often: Be a role model. This applies to emotions, too,” The APA says.

The truth about what happened shouldn’t be graphic. Lay out what happened at an age-appropriate level. If they have questions that you can’t answer, the APA says it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know.’

Above all, the APA says that most of what children need the most of during stressful times is reassurance.

Reassure them they are safe, reassure them they are loved, and reassure them they are available to answer any questions and talk to them again.

Other Resources:

American Psychological Association – How to talk to children about difficult news

Common Sense Media – Explaining the News to Our Kids