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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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