How to Talk to Your Kids About the Hard Stuff

Talking About The Hard StuffAfter the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, I wrote an article called Look for the Helpers inspired by Fred Rogers. I am redoing it with the same basic
message—sadly because so much more has happened. Not only has gun violence increased, but our democracy and our climate are threatened. Whatever side of the political spectrum you fall, the recent overturn of Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court requires discussions with your children. How do you assure their safety at school? How do you tell them that the highest court in our nation has undermined the liberty of women?

My son just gave the commencement address at the high school where he teaches.
He too was inspired by Fred Rogers’ words:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother
would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are
helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my
mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still
so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” Fred Rogers

Here is part of my son’s address that inspired me:

“One of my favorite things about teenagers is that they don’t immediately
accept society as we present it to them. We adults often end up settling for
the norms of our culture. But teenagers see everything with fresh eyes, and
they question and challenge our norms, and they make our society better for

I’m here today to tell all you seniors to keep it up. Keep questioning. Keep
fighting for change. Please, whatever you do, don’t accept society the way
we offer it to you. Keep up the courage to fight hard for the change you
need. To our students of color, you have shown us all what this courage
looks like. Continue to speak up and speak out. Racism in all forms is
unacceptable in our community. To our LGBTQ+ students, you show us
what this courage looks like. Love is the most important human emotion,
and you can love any way that you want to. You belong here and you belong

And to anyone else out there, no matter who you are, if you feel like you don’t fit the mold our society casts for you, demand a new mold that fits you just right. It is not your job to change yourself for society, it is society’s job to change for you. Every single one of us is part of that fight right now.

And if we are going to demand change from our community, we must also
help out by being active members of it.

The world right now can feel overwhelming. Just think about what you have
been through the last three school years with Covid. No high school students
have ever had that particular challenge before.

And if that wasn’t enough, you look around our country and our world right
now and you can see so many other challenges. We see wars. We see
political division and intolerance. We see rampant racism and misogyny. We
see gun violence. We see the threat of climate change. And as high school
graduates, you often see us adults utterly failing you on every single one of
these fronts. This must feel overwhelming to you, because I know it does to
me. I used to watch the show ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood’ as a kid. Fred
Rogers is a hero of mine. He said that when he was a boy and felt scared of
things he saw in the world, his mother would tell him ‘Look for the helpers.
There are always people helping.’

So, seniors, what I’m saying to you is this: fight for respect and inclusion in
your community but also serve your community. Be the helpers. Offer your
assistance. Think of others before you think of yourself. Speak out for others
who might not speak out for themselves. Be willing to sacrifice some of
your personal freedoms in order to benefit the larger group, because that’s
what living in a community means.”

Listening and TalkingWhen you fear what to say to your kids, instead of worrying about them, empower
them. Inspire your children to speak up for what they believe, to fight for what they believe. This begins when they confront you with what you might interpret as rudeness. When you stop, hear them and take them seriously, then you can teach them how to best get their message across.

Talk to them about all the helpers in their life. List them. Talk about how they can become helpers for others. Get in the dinner-table-habit of everyone sharing how
they were helped today and how they helped someone else. Knowing that will
come up at dinner puts their focus on helping.

Family TalkingYou are your child’s prime helper. A helper is not a fixer. A helper listens, empathizes, accepts. Do for your child what you would like a helper to do for you. Listen, understand their confusion and fear, their questioning, their possible and sudden abhorrent behaviors. Be patient, be kind, be compassionate. You don’t have to have an answer.

When you dip into fear of not being able to fix things, go to your helpers—family members, friends, professionals who show compassion for your worries and fears and don’t tell you there’s nothing to worry about. When you off-load your fears, you become calmer. It is your calmness and confidence that your children need more than anything to feel safe. Not false assurance that nothing will ever happen to you or them but confidence in your family’s strong relationships and solid home base.

The answer does not lie in knowing the right answer. It lies in your relationship,
your genuine caring, your sincere empathy. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  •  Be sure you have a shoulder to cry on.
  •  Pay close attention to your children. Watch for unusual behavior, like problems
    sleeping or eating.
  •  Listen quietly and calmly to their questions and worries. When you know
    you don’t have to have the answers, it’s easier to listen.
  •  There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know.”
  •  Never tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of. Never belittle what feels
    huge to them.
  •  Repair any morning arguments you have with a hug and an “I love you more
    than anything in life” before you leave the house.
  •  Make sure your children know who their helpers are at school, camp.
  •  Point out helpers as you go through the day. “There’s someone you can
    always go to if anything were to happen.”
  •  When you go to crowded places with your children, make sure you always
    pick out a meeting place or an official person to go to in case you get
  •  Make a list of helpers with your child of all the good, caring people your
    child knows—at school, home, camp, stores, including police and firemen.

You do not serve your child by avoiding conversations about the possibility of bad
things happening. On the contrary, they feel more confident when they know what
they can do.

Dad and Son TalkingStay clear of false promises. Assure young children with: “Mommy and Daddy’s job is to keep you safe. It is also our job to make sure you are always with people who keep you safe.” And older: “We promise you that we will always do whatever is in our power to keep us all safe.”

When older children ask questions that trigger you, know that sticking to the truth is always the best course of action. Because you are your child’s helper. Honesty does not mean telling everything. It means answering your child’s questions as truthfully as you can.

  •  You’re right, I cannot promise you that I will not be hit by a car or that I
    will live forever or that nothing will ever happen to you. What I can promise
    is that I will love you forever and take the best care of you I possibly can.
  • Or, The Supreme Court has ruled that abortions are no longer legal. Let’s
    talk about what that means for you now and later. Tell only as much as you
    think appropriate for your child right now. Then answer questions.
  • Share how you feel about it. Make sure you own your opinions and don’t
    impose them on your child.
  • If they don’t ask, you can bring it up by saying: “Have you heard what
    happened? Are any of your friends talking about this? Do you have any
    opinions yet?”

Be real, be honest, be genuine. Your children will appreciate it.

Related Articles:

Talking to Your Kinds About Gun Violence

When Your Child Feels Worry or Despair