Talking to Children in Times of Uncertainty

By on March 21st, 2011 Categories: Day-to-Day Matters

When families are adjusting to a breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and life after treatment, the world can already feel like a pretty unsettled place. When distressing events happen in the world, children can be affected more than parents realize. To children, images of fear and destruction on TV, as well as classroom discussions or adult conversations, can feel very personal. How can you make sure your child feels supported?

Check in with your child

Start by checking in with your child. Find out what he or she has been hearing, seeing, and thinking — or whether your child even knows about the distressing world event. Even when parents believe their conversations are out of earshot, children often are aware that something important has happened. Without an open conversation, a child may believe that a parent’s health — rather than an alarming world event — is the reason for the unsettled mood at home. Teenagers, too, will be tuned into the conversations and the mood at home, but most parents expect teens will be aware of world events.

Questions such as, “What have you heard about __________?” or “Did you hear me talking to ____ about ________?” are good ways to open a conversation.

If your child is too young to be aware of the news, you may decide not to say any more than this. If your child does know about the recent event, encourage him to share his thoughts:

  • “What have you heard about it?”
  • “What do you think about what people are saying?”
  • “Are you worried about anything in particular?”

Before you can answer your child’s questions and reduce his fears, it’s important to first really understand what your child’s experience is.

Clear up confusion

The damage to nuclear power plants in Japan has led to many reports on the dangers of radiation. These reports may be scary and confusing for children who know that Mom received radiation therapy to treat her breast cancer. How can a treatment that helps a parent also be dangerous?

Explain to your child that radiation therapy for cancer is very different than a radiation leak in the air.

For example:

“I’m going through treatment to help prevent the cancer from coming back. One of the treatments I’m getting is radiation. A special radiation machine delivers it only to my breast, where it destroys the cancer. It doesn’t hurt me, my hair won’t fall out, I won’t be radioactive, and I won’t get sick from it. In fact, I’ll feel just fine — like myself, but maybe a little tired.

“The radiation treatment I’m getting is totally different from the radiation worries and concerns you might be hearing about in Japan. That involves radiation in the air and food, which affects each person’s whole body. That kind of radiation exposure can be very dangerous. That’s not happening to me or to you or to anyone else in our family.”

You may then want to ask your child to tell you how they would explain this to a friend so that you can hear what’s been understood.

Show older children how to get reliable information. To help clarify confusion about the recent events in Japan, you can point older kids to trusted web sites for explanations of nuclear energy and radiation therapy:

Support your child

Here are some general recommendations for helping children cope with accidents, natural disasters, or war in the news:

Turn off the TV coverage around young children or those who may have been upset by TV news in the past. Know that coverage of the same upsetting event over and over again can be misinterpreted as something that’s really happening over and over again. Watch television with older children so you can answer questions and be aware of their feelings. Some older children need to be reminded that the TV images can be overwhelming and that it’s okay not to watch. This is true for many adults, who may feel better listening to radio reports or reading newspaper coverage rather than watching disturbing TV images.

Make the most of family time. Spend extra time with your child. Turn off the phone and the TV during meals and talk together. Find times of the day or activities that lend themselves to checking in with your child. Remind a child to share concerns with you instead of worrying alone. Tell older children or teens that if they share their real worries with you, you can come up with a plan together. Explain that keeping worries hidden means that parents are left to guess — and often make unhelpful suggestions.

Adults need time to talk about their worries, too. Find private times when you and your partner, friends, or adult family members can share concerns away from your children. It’s easier for you to be a good listener when your own worries have been expressed and shared with other adults.

When a child feels the world in general is a little less safe, regular routines and daily schedules are especially reassuring. There is great comfort in a predictable day. You can also help children and teenagers feel safer by emphasizing the things we already do to protect our health and personal safety, such as wearing seat belts or bike helmets, eating healthy foods and exercising, or looking both ways before crossing the street.

Take the opportunity to point out to your child the ways caring people are providing help for those in need here and around the world. Many children and teens will want to find their own ways to be helpful, such as donating to a relief organization. Through natural disasters or challenging circumstances at home, our children are looking to us for guidance in how to respond to upsetting events in healthy, caring ways.

You can find a wealth of additional parenting information and support at Parenting At a Challenging Time (PACT).

Paula K. Rauch, M.D., is a child psychiatrist on the Harvard Medical School faculty and practices at the Massachusetts General Hospital. She founded and directs the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center parenting program known as Parenting At a Challenging Time (PACT). The PACT program provides free parenting consultations to adult cancer patients who are facing the challenges of parenting along with the challenges of living with cancer. Dr. Rauch is also the chief of the Child Psychiatry Consultation Service to Pediatrics at MGH. She has devoted her professional career to understanding and supporting all the members of a family when one member is seriously ill. Dr. Rauch coauthored the book Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick to help parents address their concerns.

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