Talking with Kids About Global Issues and Troubling Life Events
With all that is going on in the world right now – from the ongoing pandemic to Russia's invasion of Ukraine – we know many parents and children are feeling overwhelmed and uneasy. Boys Town is here to help.
The following Q&A is from a Facebook Live event with Dr. Patrick Friman, Psychologist and Director of the Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health. In it, Dr. Friman discusses effective, age-appropriate ways parents can talk to their children about global issues and troubling life events. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To watch the full Facebook Live interview, which has more questions and answers,
Q&A with Dr. Patrick Friman
Question: For parents who are actively watching the news and keeping up with the current crisis in Ukraine, there is a lot of information to digest, even for themselves, let alone to explain to their kids. Before parents talk to their kids about this topic, what advice do you have for helping them get in a good headspace to make sure they are feeling okay before they talk to their kids?
Dr. Friman: Well, I make a distinction between “there and then," and “here and now." Currently, we are in the here and now. And presumably, the parents that are interested in this question are in the here and now. And in their here and now they are safe and warm and comfortable in their homes; there's no threat looming outside the window. There aren't tanks rolling across the lawn. They're in a safe space. But when they venture in their imagination to there and then, things begin to get a little dire, especially if the information we have about there and then comes from any kind of a news outlet. Because news outlets specialize in the kind of news that will grab people's attention and nothing grabs people's attention more than bad news.
So, if it seems as if they're getting into the wrong headspace, they can always revert back to here and now, which is the essence of what's called mindfulness. The value of mindfulness is focusing on what's happening right now, as opposed to what may happen in the future or what happened in the past. That's not to say we shouldn't think about those things; it's just that when they trouble us, we can always come back to here and now, and there's safe space there. We can get our mind in a good position, in a good frame, and then look out at our world from there.
Question: What would you recommend saying to younger, elementary-age children who hear talk of war, missiles and bombings at school and maybe don't understand what that means?
Dr. Friman: Well, I'm not completely convinced that it's important for them to understand fully what that means, but if they are badgering their parents for an explanation, I would keep two things in mind. One is they don't understand language in the same way that you and I do. So, you need to keep the language very, very simple and there should be very little of it. Whenever you're delivering an important message to a child, you want to make sure it's very understandable. So I recommend one or two words for every year they've been alive and then onto a new topic.
So, the first thing parents want to do is use simple language and not very much of it. The second thing is it's fairly easy to get a kiddo to think about something else, especially if it's delightful or fun or tastes good. So, you take their question seriously, answer it simply and divert their attention to something that you know they'll like to think about or like to do. And you can be in and out fairly quickly.
Also, I'm just not convinced that our children are better off if they're really well informed about any of the global crises that are occurring around the world. I want them concerned with their homework. I want them concerned with their chores. I want them concerned with their friends and their family members. I want them concerned with their teddy bears. I want them concerned with what they're going to have for dinner. I want them concerned with their immediate world and not so much a part of the world they can't even find on a map.
Question: Let's say we have kids who have not mentioned what's going on in Ukraine at all to their parents. Would you recommend still bringing it up to them just in case they're maybe holding it in and are quietly worried about it?
Dr. Friman: No, I really don't think that it does anybody any good to be fully aware of all the risks that are currently present in our world to us as a species and individuals. They come up one at a time and when they come up, they should be dealt with one at a time. If a kid is sailing along in their own little world and they're happy and everything's going to be fine, we don't want to move them out of that world by telling them, "Well, don't be too optimistic about this." It's like what happens when you tell someone that we've had five really nice days of weather and their answer is, "Well, you know, it's not going to last." Okay, maybe it isn't going to last. But let's focus on the weather we're having, as opposed to starting to think about the weather we might have. So if that kid is having nice weather, let's not ruin it for him.
Question: How can I tell if my child is struggling with this or other troubling life events? What warning sign should I be looking for?
Dr. Friman: What we want to see in the life of this kid is some kind of consistency. You know, they have school hours, they have their bedtime, they have their wake-up time. They have certainly a fixed number of chores they're expected to do. They have homework to complete, friends to talk with. And there's a routine to all of that that is pretty consistent. And the consistency itself is a message to the kid that everything's fine. If people are stressed or worried, what they're looking for is certainty. And one way you can establish certainty in the life of a kid is to keep their routines intact.
But now you're watching the kid trying to determine whether or not they are so troubled that professional help might be necessary. The place to look is any serious break in that routine. So the main elements of it involve their sleeping. Are they sleeping more or less than they usually do? Their appetite. Are they eating more or less than they usually do? Their activity levels. Are they lower or higher than they usually are? And things they formerly liked to do. Are they still doing those things or has their interest level dropped off?
If there are significant changes in any of those areas, then it might be a good idea to get some professional assistance. And that assistance, in my opinion, should first involve the pediatrician. The pediatrician is a repository of everything about children; they're the best source for a first pass at any problem. So, a parent can consult with their pediatrician to find out what they might do about their child's change in daily routine that's reflected in their worries. And if that works, if the pediatrician's advice works, that great. But if it doesn't work, then you go to the next level and consult with somebody like me and the people who work for me.
Question: Should parents be limiting or removing social media access for children during this time? If so, how do we explain this to them?
Dr. Friman: Too much of a good thing is always a bad thing. Doesn't matter what it is. And if they don't know that by now, then buy their favorite candy and tell them to eat all of it and then buy more and tell them to eat all of it until they get completely sick. And then you can explain to them: you love candy, but too much of it is just going to make you sick. You love to be online but too much online activity is just going to fill your head with stuff that doesn't belong there. That's reason number one. Reason number two is that parents are very good about warning their children to avoid bad companions and bad neighborhoods. So, if they get a sense that their child is hanging out with bad companions or is wandering into bad neighborhoods, they'll take steps right away to limit that. Guess what the internet is? It's a huge, bad neighborhood that is filled with bad companions. So, it definitely should be limited…that's the second reason. The third thing is parents are always looking for ways to motivate their kids. One way to tell how to motivate a kid is to watch what they do. Whatever they do and do a lot of that is something they like to do. If we restrict their access to that stuff they like, until they complete stuff for us like homework or chores, then we have a motivating intervention.
At a minimum, phones should be surrendered at bedtime. I know kids probably promise they won't turn their phone on when they get to bed. But if they're going to keep that promise, why would they insist on having the phone? We know from experience they're not going to do that, so we want to limit the phone at bedtime. Also, I would limit access to the phone until all expectations are met. First, your vegetables, then your dessert. First, your chores, then your phone. First, your homework, then your phone.
To see the full Facebook Live interview, which has more questions and answers,
click here. In addition, you can go to
boystown.org/parenting for additional resources to help your family during this time.