From writing letters to editors in local newspapers, to collecting petition signatures and attending events, Save the Children Action Network (SCAN) and its volunteers do a great deal of important work on behalf of children. I’ve witnessed these efforts firsthand and have had the opportunity to be a part of them in my home state of New Hampshire.
I have a deep interest in empowering kids, but I have very little experience working with them directly. I’ve never taken a class on child psychology or even babysat kids. It wasn’t until recently that I realized, I don’t even know how to talk to kids about some tough issues affecting children. With news of terrible destruction caused by hurricanes in our own country and earthquakes in Mexico, I think now is an appropriate time to share some tips on how to talk to children about difficult issues.
This led me to seek out the advice of Dr. Sheri Hatfield, licensed psychologist who has worked at Bow Memorial School and Bow High School in New Hampshire. The following is my conversation with Dr. Hatfield and how she recommends to talk with children about tough issues.
At what age is it appropriate to talk to a child about difficult issues like world hunger and maternal and child survival?
The age at which adults should talk with children about difficult and sensitive issues is, in part, dependent on the maturity of the child. Children mature at different rates and their awareness of issues beyond themselves and their own worlds is dependent on their family, their environment, and their developmental stages.
However, in general, children at the age of about 5 or 6 are starting to understand empathy and compassion for others. They are also experiencing more exposure to other children and adults in environments such as school. The age range of about 5-6 is when children develop both cognitively and socially/emotionally. It is not usually until those ages that children are able to comprehend or cope with information regarding serious issues or the experiences of other individuals.
Having said all of this, 5-6 year old children are not able to handle extensive amounts of information about tragedies or difficult issues with others. They are not old enough to listen to or handle news stories. They require simple and developmentally appropriate and short explanations of difficult issues.
Is it better to bring such topics up with a child or wait until they bring them up themselves?
If possible, it is better to have a child ask about something and then to respond, since this makes the issue “real” to the child and the adult knows that the child is curious and ready for the information. However, if adults wait until children ask, they may miss the best stages of the child’s life in which to instill empathy, compassion, and the understanding that they can help others, even if in only small ways.
In addition, by waiting until a child asks, he or she may get misinformation from others, or accurate information that is presented in a developmentally inappropriate manner, which the parent will have to correct. So, while it is always good to respond to a child’s questions and curiosity, it is more important to be proactive and to help advance the child’s development all along the way.
Doing both (teaching/discussing proactively and responding to questions) would be the ideal way of teaching a child.
What’s the best way to approach a difficult topic with a younger child? How would you recommend changing that approach (or not) as the child ages?
- Present the information in age-appropriate ways. Obviously the information that a young child can handle or understand is quite different from a teenager. Understandable and age-appropriate words and examples must be used, depending on the age of the child.
- It is also important to balance the negative/tragic information with positive information. It helps to make a connection and point out similarities between the child and the persons involved in the tragic or difficult position. For example the conversation might start with, “those people care about and love their own family members just like we do” or “those children have wishes just like you do.” Any sentences that help a young child feel connected to the other individuals is important in order to establish understanding, empathy and caring for the other’s situation.
- It is also important to talk about small ways that a child can help others. This instills the notion that it is not only important to understand and empathize with others, but that some kind of “helping action” is critical. Doing anything to help, even in small ways, helps the child not get ‘stuck’ in sadness, but feel better by doing something to help.
- There are excellent books and websites that help children at different ages to understand difficult situations. Parents or teachers can utilize those resources to help with the explanations.
For tips on how to ask a child what they already know about a difficult subject, visit The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).