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 anticipate 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. 

2 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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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