How to Talk About Scary Events with Young Children
By April Shepherd, PEP Early Childhood Plus Consultant Trainer; Matt Joyce, PEP Assist Consultant; Lea Kromer, Clinical Supervisor, PEP Prentiss Autism Center; and Julie Brizes, Occupational Therapist, PEP Prentiss Autism Center
If you’re like most people these days, your mind is at least partially occupied by some very scary events and realities. We are constantly reminded of the dangers and impact of a 2-year+ global pandemic. Stories of school shootings or gun violence plague the news. As a nation, we continue to grapple with the very real physical and emotional harm of structural racism. And now, we watch in horror as Russia launches into an unjustified war with Ukraine, intentionally targeting civilians.
Emotionally, it’s a lot for anyone. For parents, caregivers, and those who work with young children, there are additional challenges as we consider how – or if – to talk about scary events with the young people in our lives. After all, how do you explain the concept of global health, violence, racism, or war to a young child in a way that won’t scare them further or make it worse?*
When To Start the Conversation
Of course, each child is different, and you must take their unique developmental level into consideration before talking about these types of events. In some cases, when there is a not a pressing need for them to know something specific and they aren’t aware of the scary situation, the best course of action may be to leave the topic alone for the time being.
However, there are other times when you should address it. If a child is asking a lot of questions about a scary event, for example, it’s likely that they are feeling afraid. A change in behavior after a child is exposed to information about a scary event — such as tearfulness, mood swings, sleep problems, or clinginess — can also be a clue that the topic should be addressed. Incorporating elements of the scary event into their imaginative play also suggests you may want to bring it up.
If you decide the topic should be broached, there are a lot of strategies that can help. At PEP, many of the kids we work with have experienced trauma. As we nurture these young people, we understand we must do so in a way that does not traumatize them further and is sensitive to their special needs. Below are some of the trauma-informed techniques we use at PEP when we must talk about scary events with young children.
Tips on How to Talk About Scary Events
Make sure YOU are regulated.
Scary events are scary for everyone, not just children. So, before you speak to a child about something that may cause fear, assess your own emotions. If you are not regulated, put the conversation on hold until you feel emotionally ready.
Acknowledge and validate the child’s concerns and fears.
When you validate a child’s feelings it makes them feel heard and understood. You can do this simply by echoing what the child tells you, such as, “So, you feel scared because a lot of people are sick right now and you are worried you might get sick, too? That does feel scary.”
Ask the child what she already knows.
One way to start the conversation is to ask the child what she knows about the scary event already. This not only helps you understand their frame of mind but may also point to where clarification is needed.
Keep it simple.
Obviously, realities like war and racism are extremely complex. With young kids, avoid getting into nuanced details. Use as few words as possible and use a matter-of-fact tone. War, for example, could be described as, “when countries or other large groups of people use weapons to fight each other.”
Another way to keep it simple is by using pictures. You can create your own materials with simple drawings or explore your local library for picture books on the topic. At PEP, one story we created about COVID, for example, used a picture of a monster to demonstrate the concept of a virus. This visual made the pandemic easier to understand for very young children.
Build on feelings of empathy.
Positive routines provide a sense of emotional safety. One way we carry out positive practice with young children at PEP is by building on empathy through a Conscious Discipline practice known as a “Wish Well Board.” The board is part of a calming ritual and offers a visual way of sending positive wishes to people who need them.
Avoid talking about the scary event with other adults in front of the child.
It can be tempting to talk about the unsettling things that are on our minds with another adult when a child is nearby and seemingly not paying attention. However, it is possible to inadvertently traumatize a child with these types of conversations. Save these types of discussions for when you know the child will not hear you. Similarly, avoid leaving television news or other sources of frightening information on where children can watch it.
Our world can be a scary place and it seems especially so in recent years. As we simultaneously grapple with our modern realities and nurture young children, it’s crucial to be sensitive. We know that traumatic events can impact the developing brain and have life-long negative consequences. In some cases, scary world events can be traumatizing for young children. Providing a safe, nurturing space to talk about these events in a developmentally appropriate way can buffer young children when they encounter frightening information.
*Similar challenges exist for those who care for or work with young people who have autism or those who have communication disorders which impact their ability to receive or express information. While the piece is written primarily with young children in mind, many of these ideas and tips can also be used, as appropriate, to talk to children with autism or those who have special communication needs.