Mind Matters — How To Talk To Children About Difficult Topics

I grew up in a New Jersey mill town that was literally a stone’s throw across the Delaware from Philadelphia. It may have been South Jersey, but it was not the south, yet when I was young, my mother told me stories about the Klu Klux Klan burning crosses on lawns when she was young. Their bigotry extended beyond hatred of blacks and Jews to include Poles and Italians too. (Bigotry having its own sense of inclusion!) The end of cross burnings in that mill town did not end bigotry there or elsewhere, and we are seeing across the country a rise of hate crimes, from vandalism to bullying at schools to mass murder.

Children, no matter their age, hear stories, pick up some sense of the news either about what is happening in the larger societal level or in their own school and communities. If children are emotional barometers for what is happening in the family in terms of stress and anxiety, so are they also emotional barometers for what is happening in the world at large. It is important for parents—actually, for anyone involved in the rearing and development of children, to find ways to explore with children the topic of hate incidents in a safe and caring way.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN.org) addresses how to talk with children about these matters.

Among the many distressing events, such as school shootings or disasters, one issue does stand out as being ubiquitous in every community—and that is hateful acts. The mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh recently is the consummate hate crime. However, communities throughout the nation are being challenged by other kinds of hateful acts, such as name calling and bullying at school, taunts on social media, threatening letters to students who are other than white and heterosexual—such as Muslim, Jewish, LGBTQ.

According to NCTSN, adults can and should start talking about national and community events. Of course, the conversation needs to be age appropriate. Parents and adults in authority are role models for children.

Before adults talk to kids, though, we need to reflect on our own reactions to events. What prejudices do we carry that need to be addressed? What personal feelings do we need to understand before we sit down with our children? Do we feel angered, or saddened, or hopeless? Do we need to process with some other adults first before we talk to our children?

NCTSN suggests checking with your children to see what they already know. Remember that pre-school children can be psychic sponges, soaking in whatever the adults are feeling. Try not to expose them to adult conversations. (I need to remind myself of that one from time to time!)

Find accurate information and truthful accounting in order to allay fears and correct any misinformation children may have. Being role models for our children is a great responsibility. We can use these events to teach that indeed “Hate has no home here.” May those lawn signs prevail where once there were cross burnings. My mother would approve.