6 Ways to Talk to Your Kids About What’s Happening in America Right Now

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Credit: Bijou Karman

The headlines worsen by the day—ICE raids, mass shootings, families being separated at the border—and, no matter the age, our kids are absorbing the news at a feverish pace.

Depending on your family situation and reality, this likely isn’t a brand-new worry or conversation. But given the events of the past week, it might have hit a new level—especially if your children have been privileged enough not to be directly affected until this point. So what’s the best way to talk to your children about the violence and worrisome government policies gripping communities all over the nation? Whether it’s at the dinner table or before bed, know this: Your kids need you now more than ever, and it’s likely they have serious questions—and fears—about what they’re reading online or hearing from their friends on social media.

As hard as this may be, your number-one goal should be to stay calm as much as possible in the face of the existential crisis our country is experiencing.

“Even if you’re losing it, you can’t lose it around your kids,” says Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine in New York City. “Your kids are going to take a big cue from you so how you handle things right now is going to have a huge impact.”

Saltz says this means doing everything you can to make your kids feel safe—and sharing age-appropriate information with them.

“Hugs and reassurance are the things your kids—even your teenagers—need right now,” she says. “To some degree you should also be sharing basic information because it’s better if this is shared by you. Also, if you say nothing—like what’s happening in our country is too horrible to speak about—that won’t leave your kids feeling like they can talk to you.”

Here, the six things you can do right now to keep the lines of communication open at home:

Take the time to listen

“Parents are often tempted to quickly provide blanket reassurances to their children to make them feel better,” says Steven A. Meyers, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “We instinctively say things like, ‘Of course you’re safe’ or ‘That can never happen here.’ This has the effect of hurrying the conversation and means you’re not carefully listening to your children’s concerns.”

Monitor your child’s reactions

“It can be difficult to speak honestly with children about horrible events such as a mass shooting,” Meyers says. “However, children need to know the basics of these tragedies if they are preoccupied with them or bring them up, but the level of detail needs to be adjusted to their age and their ability to tolerate the resulting anxiety. To modulate the message, parents need to monitor their child’s reactions during these conversations.”

Impart your family’s values

“For example, in the case of the ICE raids, I think it’s important to explain to your kids that there are laws in the country that people have to follow,” Saltz says. “Then you can pivot to imparting your value system. You can say ‘I think this is wrong’ if that’s what you believe. Your child will talk to you about his or her concerns and will want to know how you feel and remember: It’s okay to say that you don’t have the answers to all their questions about what’s happening in our country right now.”

Gently invite your kids to share how they feel

“At the dinner table, for example, parents can begin with questions like ‘I wonder if you’ve heard anything about this’ or ‘I’ve heard that some kids are worried about these events—what have you been thinking?’” Meyers says. “Be prepared for some kids to shut the conversation down quickly. They may come back to the topic later. It’s the parent’s role to provide the invitation for discussion but the child’s decision on whether to move forward and talk more about it.”

Watch for signs of anxiety

“When it comes to the recent mass shooting at Walmart, I think an older child can understand that the point of terrorism is to incite terror,” Saltz says. “I also think it’s important to tell kids that these acts remain incredibly rare but that you understand why they’re anxious about this. However, if you notice that your kids are becoming so anxious that they are socially crippled—for example their friends are going to the mall and they say ‘I can’t go,’ they start to retreat from their social life, or you see changes in school performance, these are red flags of serious anxiety and you want to be sure to have your child evaluated.”

Help to make bedtime a calm time

“For young children especially, bedtime is when many kids bring up their concerns,” Meyers says. “Some children may be particularly worried and can have difficulty falling asleep. In these instances, parents should be attentive and responsive and may need to provide them with ways to calm themselves such as using slow, deep breathing or visualizing calm scenes to redirect their focus.”