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What do we say when we don’t know what to say?

The news over the last couple of weeks has been even more worrying than usual. When I was young, the only news I heard or saw was a 5 minute child-friendly round-up in the form of ‘Newsround’ on the BBC and overhearing my parents talking together in the front of the car. Today, I doubt there are many children who haven’t heard, read or seen images that have scared, upset and confused them. To be honest, they’ve scared, upset and confused me too.

My sons are in their early 20s and I’ve no doubt we will be discussing world events when we’re together again. But a few years ago, they would have been asking “what’s happening Mummy? Why is it happening, what will happen next, are we safe, are my friends safe, so-and-so says this, but so-and-so says this ….” And there are few harder questions for parents than these …. What do we say when we don’t know what to say?

It's not what we say, it’s how we say it

It reminded me of some sound advice about telling the truth to kids in ‘Good Inside’ by Dr Becky Kennedy which is helpful whenever you are facing difficult questions, about the ongoing situation between Israel and Palestine or anything else. The point is that it's not about the topic. As Dr Becky says, there are no “perfect words for imperfect situations”. It’s not the words we use, it’s how we connect with our child when they are confused, scared and upset that matters and makes a difference.

We don’t need to know everything

Let’s remind ourselves that we don’t need to know everything as parents. Although it feels great for us when we know it all, it can be reassuring to our kids to realise that we don’t know it all. On a day-to-day basis, they often think we’ve got it all sorted, which makes their lack of understanding about things even more frustrating for them. We can take this further and think how beneficial it is for our kids to get used to the idea that people don’t always know everything and that’s not a problem. It simply means they can be curious and find out more, if they want.

What do our children really want to hear?

So there is no ‘right’ way to talk about tricky things, and we don’t need to have all the answers for our kids. When they ask us “what’s happening, what’s going on” they’re not necessarily looking for an in-depth explanation as much as to check in whether their instinct to be worried is correct, and to find out whether we’re attuned to how they’re feeling. So we say:

“You’re right to have picked up something ….”

“It’s good that you’ve noticed that …”

“It makes sense that you’re worrying about what you’ve heard …”

Trust their instincts

These sorts of phrases are important because we want our kids to trust their instincts. We don’t want to give any message that means they might start to doubt their instincts and try to dismiss or over-ride them.

A little age-appropriate explanation can be helpful of course. We worry that putting scary things into words might make kids more scared but it doesn’t work like that. Being scared without understanding is, well, scarier. And be sure that kids do pick up the vibes even if they don’t act it out or ask direct questions. They are wired to notice any shift in the environment and pick up tension from the people around them.

“Clear, direct, honest information shared while connected to you, your child’s loving, trusted, adult … is what helps kids feel safe and builds resilience.” Dr Becky Kennedy, Good Inside

Let’s consider how we respond to our children’s questions, and raise sensitive issues with our kids.

Managing our own emotions

There are many studies showing the significant impact of body language – way beyond the import of the words. When we were training as parent educators together, we had to do various exercises using different body positions, gestures, prosody and tone of voice with varying scripts. It was remarkable how the body language was more powerful than the words, both for those receiving and giving the message.

When we’re approaching sensitive subjects, the first thing to address is managing our own upset and discomfort, in order to manage our breathing and from that our body and voice. We want to sound ‘low and slow’ so that’s more like the authoritative pilot of the airplane speaking than the welcoming burble of the friendly cabin crew!

The other reason we need to manage our own emotions about the topic or situation is so we stay in our Thinking Brain or Pre Frontal Cortex and don’t hurtle into our Flight + Fight mode. Staying in our PFC means we keep our ability to listen to our kids, notice their responses, and empathise with them.

And that’s important because our kids really need to feel heard and seen in these moments.

I promise to offer some short phrases in a minute, but there’s one more thing! And that’s about our agenda ….

Putting aside our agenda

Our desire to reassure, calm and soothe our child is so strong. We are deeply wired to make them feel better, so it goes against the grain to set out to do anything that might unsettle them. I hope that’s covered a bit by the idea that is a good idea to allow our children to feel unsettled, in our calm and loving presence, so they aren’t frightened by being unsettled so much in the future.

But it’s natural that our agenda for difficult and sensitive conversations is going to veer towards wanting to cheer our child up and reassure them. We urgently want them to move from feeling scared to feeling brave, or from anger to acceptance. This does happen, but it’s a slow and indirect process that comes from within the child. We can’t force it from the outside. But we can create the conditions in which that shift in emotions is more likely to happen. So we focus on creating the optimal situation for our child to open up, share, listen and understand, rather than trying to make it happen.

Dr Becky recommends that we acknowledge what we don’t know about any situation – because this is honest – and balance it with an example of what we do know – because this is connecting and soothing.

“You’re worried about xyz, and that makes sense. It’s not clear what’s going on, I can’t tell how long it will last. Not knowing or understanding what is happening makes everyone feel unsettled. What I do know is that you can always talk to me if you’re worried, and I will also listen to what you have to say, and we will work something out together.”

“That’s a really important question to ask. I don’t have the answer right now. We just don’t have enough information yet. What I do know is that you can keep asking questions, and I will always tell you the truth even if it’s difficult because we are in this together.”

When they’re not asking questions

Sometimes we want, or we need to, raise sensitive topics with children even though they’re not asking direct questions. We’re often tempted to leave this for as long as possible, hoping that things might work out and we won’t have to do it. But it’s often better, given how sensitive our children are, and how reticent they may be to start the conversation themselves, to get on the front foot. We need to identify a quiet and calm place and time and take a deep breath out, because when we regulate our emotions to project a calm state, our child can co-regulate better. And use real words rather than euphemisms, because it’s not helpful if kids get confused on top of being worried!

Noticing their response

After your first statement, pause and see how it lands with your child. Maybe check in with them with “how does it feel to hear this, or talk about this?” or perhaps “it’s OK that you are upset/angry/scared about this”. Then use your instincts and your knowledge of your child to see how much further to go, or when to pick up the conversation again.

Bear in mind that our child may not be responsive in the moment. They may even try to shut the conversation down. In an ideal world, they would look relieved and say “wow, thanks parent, that was really great talking with you” which would make us feel a lot better about how well the conversation had gone. But in real life we don’t tend to get that reaction because children take time to absorb and process the conversation, and so silence, squirming, pulling faces is par for the course and it doesn’t mean the conversation has been a disaster. The point is they’re now realising that they can bring this issue up in the future.

Talking with our kids about tricky uncomfortable upsetting things is a really important part of our job. And none of us are going to look forward to it or enjoy it. We’ll always query whether we’ve done it well or could have done it differently. And if you were discouraged – inadvertently or directly - from talking with your parents about tricky things, then it’s going to be even harder.

And doing difficult things as parents is something we get better at with practice! We often get called upon to do things we never anticipated or didn’t realise we could do. And even though it is hard work, and we often doubt ourselves, we keep going, doing the best we can, because it’s more about being available and honest and offering your child a non-anxious presence rather than providing all the answers.