As parents and those who work with or care for children, we can agree that children should not be exposed to all adult conversations. Most adults try not to swear in front of kids or discuss parenting topics that could alarm or cause misunderstanding. The developing brain is not cognitively mature. Therefore, kids cannot understand and comprehend certain experiences and information the way adults do, with mature brains. Having “developmentally appropriate” conversations with kids is very important, especially when it comes to scary events.
For example, years ago in graduate school, I spent many afternoons caretaking a three-year-old little girl. One day, we walked past a row of stores in San Francisco. A homeless man, who had been sitting on the sidewalk, stood up and started to yell profanities and nonsensical words. The little girl looked at me with frightened eyes and asked to be picked up. As I lifted her, she asked, “What is wrong with that man?”
In that moment, I had to think about a way to explain so that she would understand, but not be afraid or anxious.
I said, “Remember when you had a bad dream and woke up from your nap crying the other day?”
The little girl nodded her head. “Well, that man is awake and having a bad dream.” She looked at me and was quiet for a moment.
Then she said excitedly, “I know what he needs!” So, I asked what did he need? She said, “He needs his mommy!”
Wise child. I had helped her make a connection with the incident. Because she felt safe, she was not afraid. The connection made sense in her young mind.
It is fairly well known that constant fighting in front of children can be harmful for them. A parental argument may result in children feeling anxious, upset, or guilty. These feelings can result in children feeling insecure in their own attachments and relationships. Similar behavior results are true for scary events. When kids hear fear-based conversations, they internalize negative thoughts and emotions, becoming insecure and feeling inferior. Although adults may have similar reactions in these situations, adults have the advantage of mature cognitive structure, experience and verbal skills to sort and balance out those fears.
Times in our country have been tumultuous, uncertain and divisive. Lively conversations reflecting current events happen everywhere: in the car, at dinner tables, between parents, with friends, at work and around town. These exchanges are necessary to understand and process one another’s experiences. We build empathy by talking and listening to each other.
But too often, we are unaware that young minds are also listening. Children struggle to process certain words, contexts, ideas and tones of voices, especially when the speakers appear to be in conflict. The ears of little ones are receptive sensors to the verbiage from adult mouths, hearing and subconsciously analyzing banter, sound bites and intense exchanges.
Since the presidential elections, I have seen a significant increase in the level of grief, trauma, anxiety and insecurity in my practice. Whether they are adults, children or youth, people are worried.
Many of parents I support are now realizing the detrimental effects of failing to filter their conversations during the past few months, especially when they’ve voiced their opinions in the presence of young kids.
Stories shared with me include: girls expressing fear about their gender value, teen girls talking about college and wondering whether or not they will ever get equal pay as adults, kids worrying about the possibility of their schoolmates being deported, parents who have been prohibited for work travel overseas, and kids considering that their relatives living outside the country might not be able to visit them. Parents seek counsel on what to do, especially when they do not feel hopeful.
At times, children seem to be wise beyond their years. However, it is unfair to talk to them like little adults. A child’s ego, the part of the mind that creates a person’s sense of self and personal identity, is still developing. The young ego wants to feel strong to counter feelings of inferiority. Children listen. Then they want to show and convey to adults that they understand and can relate to conversations and events. But, children are not yet mature adults.
Next time you catch yourself talking to your kid like a “little adult,” stop and ask your kid, “What did you hear me say?” Let them reflect back to you. Chances are, they will need some clarification. Sometimes, it’s funny! But, the stakes are high when kids internalize scary events that are hard to process. It’s important to think about what we say about scary moments and events. Reflect and re-construct your words into a context that a child would understand.
Instill hope. We need to balance out fear with hope. We can provide our children with hope if we seek it and if we practice hopeful thinking ourselves. It may be hard for parents and adults to access hopeful feelings, but we still need to try, because we owe it to kids to help them feel positive about the future, even when facing difficult times.
We can prioritize what’s really important for children. By helping kids feel nurtured and loved at home, we help them understand the link to building nurturing and loving relationships with those outside the family. We can practice and foster empathy for people who are not as fortunate as we are. This will enable us both to balance our own fears and to help us find hope, by practicing and modeling generosity and hopefulness.