April 11: When A Child Asks an Upsetting Question
Last week I gave a presentation at a conference for parents and caregivers of children with congenital heart disease. One of the questions that arose involved how to answer questions from a child when the topic feels scary and upsetting to the parent. Over the years, I have spoken with many parents about how to handle these discussions, with topics ranging from how to speak with a child about a family member’s addiction, how and when to discuss mortality of a family member who is gravely ill, and how to talk with children about issues with their own physical or emotional health.
Of course, each of these conversations will ultimately be highly individualized. Within the context of knowing that to be true, I’m going to offer some general suggestions:
When your child asks a question about a topic that elicits strong emotions for you, begin by giving yourself permission to pause. In the moment, it’s understandable to feel pressure to reply to a question right away. Try to keep in mind that parents and children are in conversation all the time, and there is no mandate stating that you must answer a question the moment it is asked.
Here are a couple of scripts to say to yourself as you pause:
This is a big question. I’m going to give myself a minute to think.
I’m having a big reaction to this question. It’s ok if I take a pause.
This question feels like a lot to me. I need to stop, breathe, and re-group.
As you pause, take a moment to regulate your body and your emotions, for example you could:
Put your hand on your heart and take a long, slow breath while reminding yourself, ‘This feels like a big moment and I’m doing my best.'
Count to 20
Slowly squeeze and release your hands 5 times
After a pause, try to gather more information about exactly what your child is asking. Particularly in emotionally laden situations, it’s so easy to misinterpret what you’re hearing, so you want to be sure that you’re responding to the actual question that your child is asking. To help your child focus their question and make it more specific you can:
Repeat the question and ask, “Tell me more so I know I understand what you’re asking.”
Re-phrase the question and ask, “Did I get that right?”
Or simply say, “That’s a big question, can you tell me more about what you’re thinking?”
Pay attention to the emotions that you are experiencing in reaction to your child’s question. Does this topic make you feel sad? Helpless? Angry? Defeated? Overwhelmed?
Keep in mind that these are the feelings you are having in relation to this topic. Your child’s feelings may be similar, but they also may be quite different.
Notice to your body’s physical reaction: are your muscles tight? Did your stomach clench when your child asked this question? Is your heart pounding.
If you check in with yourself and realize that you feel too upset or overwhelmed to talk about the topic right now, or if you feel that you will be better able to have a conversation after you have some time to think, share this information with your child in an age appropriate way. While you don’t want to overwhelm your child with your distressed feelings, you can be genuine about the fact that the topic brings up tricky feelings:
“This is a really important question. I need some time to get my thoughts together. Let’s talk about it _____.” (you might offer specific time, such as ‘after lunch’, or you might say something more general such as ‘in the morning’).
“Sounds like you’ve been thinking about ____. I’m so glad you asked me this question. This topic makes me sad and I really want to talk about it with you. Let’s _____ (take a walk, draw, build with Legos) for a little while and then I’ll be ready to talk.”
“I’m glad you asked this important question. Right now I’m having a lot of big feelings. I’ll be ready to answer all of your questions in a little while. First I’m going to _____ (call a friend, have a drink of water), and when my body feels calmer I’ll be ready to talk.”
Note that if you tell your child that you want to discuss something later, it’s important that you follow-up as promised. You can write yourself a note or put a reminder on your phone so that you don’t forget.
Once you feel ready to answer your child’s question about an emotion-laden topic, try to focus on answering the question that was asked (see above for tips on how to help your child focus their question and make it more specific). If you keep your answer specific and focused on the topic raised by your child, there will always be room to expand and provide more information when your child requests it.
In addition to providing information for your child and answering their question, reflect the emotions that your child is expressing in reaction to the conversation:
“I’m noticing that you look really sad when we talk about this. I feel sad, too. In our family we can always talk about tricky topics and sometimes that will make people feel sad."
“It seems like some of this information is making you feel pretty uncomfortable. This is a hard topic. I’m glad that you asked me about it and I’m glad you’re letting me know how you feel."
Or simply, “Looks like you have a lot of big feelings about this. I’m right here.”
Bear in mind that you don’t need to have the perfect answer to your child’s question. The goal is to be a calm, kind, steady presence and to encourage your child to communicate and share feelings.
After the conversation, if you find yourself thinking about something you said and wishing you had expressed yourself differently, you can share that with your child and re-group.
Finally, after talking with a child about a distressing topic, whether answering one question or having a long discussion, I find it so useful to circle back either at the end of the conversation or some time later that day to thank your child for being honest with you and to remind them that when children feel upset about things they almost always feel better if they are able to share their thoughts and feelings with an adult who cares about them.