How to Talk with Children About Scary Topics
Dr. Rona Milch Novick is a child psychologist, dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University and author of the brand-new Mommy, Can you Stop the Rain, published by Apples&Honey Press.
Q. Children often have fears. Should we address all fears equally when talking with children?
Young children can have illogical fears. We know they cannot fall down the bath drain and there are no ferocious dinosaurs under the bed. Such fears can be addressed with reason (even your hand is too big to fit down the drain) or with “magical” interventions that give children a sense of control or mastery (we can use our dinosaur finding flashlight, and you can sleep with your favorite toy). Childhood fears that include real things and interfere with regular activities require adult intervention. Reassurance coupled with helping childen take small steps away from fear helps.
Q. How much should children be told about the current virus situation?
For all children, the focus should be on a simple explanation - there is a very contagious virus that is making some people sick. An age-appropriate discussion of germs and how they spread can be helpful. The greater emphasis should be on how we are staying safe by washing our hands and staying in our homes. Engaging children in helping others, making cards, or calling family members can also help decrease anxiety by giving them a sense of control and helpfulness.
Q. How can we talk to children about their fears when we adults are also afraid?
We don’t want to burden children with adult fears but sharing that we get scared too can normalize children’s fears. Never tell children their fears are unfounded or silly. We can ask them what scares them about the situation, and we can also ask how we can help them feel better. Perhaps they’d like a hug, or an extra bedtime story. If they ask for impossible reassurance - can you promise grandpa will be okay – provide reassurance you can offer. Explain what everyone is doing to stay safe and healthy, and that’s why we can’t go to grandpa’s house right now.
Q. What advice do you have to address children's loneliness and isolation?
This is a time when we need to leverage technology and other low-tech ways of connecting. The rainbow and teddy-bear movement – with people putting drawings of rainbows and teddy bears in their windows so children walking with parents who cannot visit – still feel their community and neighbors are connected to them. We can help our children learn to have “virtual play dates” and call or write to the people in their lives. Even having young children draw a picture that parents photograph and send to relatives is helpful. The key issue is for children to know they are not alone, to know that people in their family and their lives are caring about them and for them, even from a distance. And to validate that we know it is hard, and it is sad, but it is not, we hope and pray, for too long. We are in the midst of a storm, but the sun, just as for the little girl in Mommy, Can You Stop the Rain, will shine on their head, again.
Q. What is the role of educators in talking to children about fears?
The unique caring of adults, both teachers and parents, are so powerful in children’s lives. In times of crisis any challenge, so much of what we communicate is not in our words. Children are watching us – teachers and parents – for cues, signs of whether the world is safe or horrible. When adults portray calm, hope, caring, they help children see the potential even in a troubling world. When adults use the language of togetherness, I am here for you, I will be with you, they give children a sense of security that speaks louder than words.
Mommy, Can You Stop the Rain, tells the story of a young girl who, frightened by a storm, asks if her parents can stop the rain, thunder, lightning, and wind, and how her parents comfort her. Includes note to parents.