• Carol Swartout Klein

Talking to Kids: Answering the difficult questions that arise


By: Kurt Greenbaum

Psychologists who deal with children and schools agree on the one most important thing parents must do during difficult times: Reassure children that they are safe and cared for. The National Association of School Psychologists counsels parents to “explain that all feelings are OK when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.”

The strategy for talking to children is different depending on the age of the child. St. Louis Public Radio shared stories of educators at the early childhood, high school and post-high school level. One example involved a 4-year-old boy who added fantastical elements to his version of the Ferguson story.

“So what that told us is that (the boy) unleashed something he wasn’t sure about … and it was too much, too soon for him, so he went to his fantasy world in the same sentence," Stephen Zwolak, executive director of the University City Children's Center, told St. Louis Public Radio. "That is what early childhood kids will do. They will see it, let us know, and then go to a safe place.”

Other age-groups shared the importance of making space for the conversation to occur.

Here’s a few more key pieces of advice, drawn from the NASP here, as well as from Bruce Reyes-Chow, author, blogger and leadership coach, whose work has been recommended by school districts in the St. Louis area.

  • Make the time for kids to talk. Look for signs that they’re interested in asking questions.

  • Make your explanations age-appropriate. Look for guidelines on this NASP page.

  • Limit the time you spend watching troubling events on television.

  • Several school districts in the region have advised parents not to assume your “child’s worries and questions are the same as your own.”

  • Do not shy away from discussions about race. As Reyes-Chow notes, “These are hard conversations, they are awkward and we may instinctively want to avoid having them. But if you also believe that most Black families in the United States have talked about Ferguson, what does it say about the rest of us if we have not?”

  • School officials say it’s OK to acknowledge that opinions may vary around the specific facts involving the Michael Brown case. Parents, when asked, should share messages with their children such as:

  • “We need to work for peace in our community.”

  • “I want you to be safe. “

  • “What can we do in the community to make sure we all get along?”

  • “We need to make sure everyone is treated with dignity and respect.”

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