What to Say When Kids Ask Hard Questions, or When They Know Things Aren’t ‘Right’

When Children Ask Hard Questions

Some days are great days. We want to squeeze every delicious moment out of them and keep them forever somewhere safe and accessible where our loved days and precious things are kept. Some days are terrible. They’re the days we want to fold in half, and then in half again and again and again until those days are too small to hurt us any more. But days are like that aren’t they. For better or worse they will come and they will go. Sometimes the effects of them will stay – the glow, the growth, the joy, the bruises – long after those days have gone.

Our children will also feel the effects of these days. Whether they are our days or theirs, they will feel it when something isn’t right. Children are emotional barometers, and even if they are being protected from the detail of adult worries they will often still feel the tailwhip. When changes or difficult times happen in a family it can be difficult to know what to say to kids, or how much to say, or whether to say anything at all. If there is any chance that children might be picking up on distress in a family, it’s important that we address this with them. If they sense there is ‘something’ going on, and if we keep that ‘something’ unspoken, the risk is that they will feel the heaviness of the situation but without the safe outlet that comes with talking it through with a loving adult. 

Whether that ‘something’ looks like a parent changing or losing a job, health concerns, or families having to cut back on the things they are used to, it’s important to acknowledge the changes that children might be feeling the effects of. The best way to do this is with age-appropriate truth, delivered with strength, warmth, and confidence. ‘Age appropriate’ will depend on what they already know (mum and dad have been fighting a lot, or mum or dad aren’t working at the moment), what is unavoidable (moving to a new home because of a change in finances), and how many questions they ask before they feel safely held by ‘enough information’.

How do I know if they are feeling that something isn’t right? How do I know if they need to talk?

Some children might not ask any questions at all. This doesn’t mean they won’t be feeling the strain. Instead, they might use behaviour, attitude, or words in a roundabout way as unintended signals of distress. Whatever they do, it is an invitation for us to come closer. It won’t always feel like this, but even the biggest behaviour and the coldest of attitudes are a call for support.

The behaviour might look like big, un-adorable behaviour such as tantrums, defiance, or anger. It might also look like clinginess, difficulty sleeping, or doing things which let them escape from the world for a while such as more time with pets, more time on their own or in their rooms. It can also look like more of a need to have everything their own way. If their world starts to feel out of control, it’s understandable that they might try to control what they can. This might look like controlling you, siblings, what the day looks like, what bedtime looks like, what to watch on tv, what to eat for dinner, what shoes you wear – anything that will give them a felt sense of their own power and influence. We all need to know that we can have an influence on the world around us when we need to, and this need might become bigger when their world feels more unpredictable. 

Clues might also come through their words, but not words that directly ask what’s happening. They might ask, ‘Are you okay?’ or, ‘Can you play with me/be with me/stay with me while I fall asleep?’

They might also give you clues in through physical symptoms. When kids are worried or anxious, there will be the physiology of anxiety but it won’t always feel like fear. This might look like sick tummies, sore tummies, trouble sleeping, or headaches.

The antidote to anxiety isn’t ‘nothing to worry about’, it’s trust.

The truth of it all is that the world feels too big sometimes. However brave they are, and however much we reassure them, the world will just feel too big. The things our children worry about will be real for them, and those fears and anxieties need to be respected and acknowledged. This doesn’t mean we agree with their worries. It means we acknowledge that they have them. It also doesn’t mean their fears or anxiety will disappear completely. What it means is that with your strong loving presence, and your belief in their capacity to cope, they will start to feel a little bigger in the presence of those worries. Think of this, not in terms of cutting out their worries, but about adding in – adding in your certainty, the felt sense that they will get through this, and the capacity to rest in your strength.

It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 

Now for the how.

Whether or not they ask directly, when their world feels wobbly children and teens will be looking to their important adults for a felt sense of safety. They need to know the adults in their lives are holding on to them. When they feel this, they will be more able to let go of stress, worry, or anxiety. 

To help them feel a little bigger in the presence of stressful or challenging times, give them as much detail as they need to feel safe, but not so much that it will overwhelm them. If they feel you avoiding or ignoring their questions, that in itself can be enough to make them feel unsafe or insecure about what it all means for them.

There are two things kids and teens will be looking for from us. The first is, ‘Do you see me?’ They need to know that you understand the problem as they see it. This doesn’t mean you agree, just that you understand why they feel the way they do. Validation is the way here. It lets them know, ‘Yes, I see you, I understand you, and I’m with you’. In real terms this might look something like:

  • ‘Yes, I see how worried you are about this,’ or

  • ‘Yes, it’s scary isn’t it,’ or

  • ‘Yes, this has been such a big year for our family. We’ve had some big changes and that can feel confusing or worrying. I really get that,’ or

  • ‘Yes, it feels so unfair that bad things happen sometimes. I wish so much that things could be different. It makes sense that you would feel sad or mad about that. I feel like that too sometimes,’ or

  • ‘Yes, I hear you. Sometimes it can seem as though other people have so much more. It’s understandable that you might feel jealous or sad about that. Everyone feels that way sometimes, even the people who seem to have everything.’

The second thing they will be asking is, ‘Will I be okay?’ They are looking for signs of safety, and the greatest and most comforting signs of safety will come from their important adults. Whatever has happened, and as awful as things might feel right now, the truth is that you will get through, and so will they. It will be tempting to align with the fear and the ‘bigness’ of it all but as much as you can, tap into that part of you that knows you will be okay eventually because you will be. You’re built for this. You’ve always got them through before, and you’ll get them through now. The words might sound something like, 

  • ‘As bad as things might feel, I know with everything in me that we are going to get through this. Whatever happens, we’re going to do this together, and we are going to be okay. We can do hard things – we’ve done plenty before.’

  • ‘Honestly, I don’t know why bad things happen sometimes, but I know that whatever happens, we’re going to be okay. I know that for certain,’ or

  • ‘It’s true that we are going to have less money/presents/treats/holidays this year, but we are going to have enough. It’s okay to feel sad, and whatever you are feeling, I want you to know that we will be okay. Let’s make sure we find other ways to enjoy what we have. I know we’re going to get through this,’ or

  • ‘It can be hard when you see that some people seem to have more than you. It’s okay to feel sad about that. It’s really normal – everyone feels like that sometimes. It’s so easy to focus on what you might be missing, or what you don’t have – I do that too sometimes – but it’s also important to remember what we do have. That might not feel like enough right now – I get that – but sometimes you will be the one with ‘more’, and sometimes others will be. It’s just the way things seem to work. The important thing to remember is that the fact that others have more right now doesn’t change that we have more than enough. There are people who would give anything to have what we have right now. It’s true, it might be different to what you’re used to or what you’d like, but it is enough.

The key part is, ‘And I know we’re going to be okay.’ Even if you are feeling sad, or exhausted, or anxious, the truth is that you will get your family through this and they will be okay. 

It feels like your job is to protect them from pain, but your job is something more important than that. 

As much as you might always feel so driven to protect your children from pain or disappointment, your job is bigger than that. The importance of you is to make sure that they can (eventually) find their own way through pain or disappointment to a place of strength and hope. If our children are going to live wholehearted lives, they are going to come face to face with pain and disappointment sometimes. This is a given. What isn’t a given is that they will be crushed by that. Of course, they will face challenges that might crush them for a while – we all do. When this happens, they might be driven to rest or withdraw from the world for a while while they strengthen and heal. What’s important is that they don’t stay there. The push to rise after the fall will come from knowing that they can eventually reach a place that feels better than where they are, however small or frail that ‘knowing’ might feel at the time.

And finally …

Ultimately pain and disappointment isn’t the end of wholehearted, happy engagement with life and the world, it’s part of it. We don’t get to say how our children will learn to trust their own strength, and their capacity to get through hardship. All we can do is be there with our hearts and arms open to hold them close when those hard days come. Who you are to them will always be more important than what you do. You won’t always be able to stop their storms, but your strong, loving presence and your certainty that they will be okay will soften the effects of those storms enough so that they will feel safe and held until the storm passes. 

3 Comments

Laura

Your posts help me understand myself and my children. I get something out of every post – usually way more than I can digest and I come back to the posts time and time again. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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