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. 

8 Comments

Jenna

Tell them the truth – about everything! At the end of the day, your children are your people, your tribe, and they know when you’re lying to them – they aren’t stupid. They’ve been observing you their entire life, they know who you are, and more importantly, they’ll overhear you talking with your spouse, or whomever, later; so, they shouldn’t have to find out the truth about everything by overhearing your lies, or overhearing someone else talk of your betrayals. Teach your children to trust their parents, and their own instincts, and tell them the truth. Maybe they’ll surprise you by returning the favor one day, I know it worked with mine.

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Shaun K

Pretty much right on the money. Children hear your words – words are important – and they also “feel” you as you say them. They’re gauging your emotional state – which doesn’t have to be utterly composed and serene – but does need to be reasonably assuring that the situation will be handled and “we’re all going to be OK.”

That’s not lying. Parents don’t need to be totally calm and without any emotional challenges, but parenting helps us rise to the occasion, come out of ourselves despite whatever else is going on in our adult lives, and helps us authentically navigate to the words and feelings that best help our children.

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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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Lesly

Great article! So much precious advice, my son has some of the symptoms of anxiety in his behaviour, and we try to cope with it together

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Jim B

What I appreciate about this perspective is that it reminds me that sometimes adults/parents require reflection of the inner child when unexpected pressure happens. It is like the pressure change that occurs in an airline that suddenly drops, causing oxygen masks to drop. The demand is to stay calm and put the oxygen mask on ourselves and then our child. It is a mindfulness moment of breathing and rebooting wellness. The flurry of activity in the amygdala and building the memory in the hippocampus affects the executive function as children mature into resilience. The article also reminds me of the practice of RAIN: Recognize, Allow (or Accept), Investigate, and Nourish (or Nurture). This is instrumental to not eliminate the pain but shrinking the amount of it in times of stress that is triggered by emotional events. I work with 4th-grade students and families in California and trust in your work, Karen. You have inspired me to develop material and strategies to support SEL. Your help is always welcomed.

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