Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Do We Tell the Kids?

After my last post about preparing my staff for bad budget news, Frequent Quarterbacker Jim wrote,
My father-in-law is in the hospital right now, probably not overly serious... but you never know. After reading this post, I plan to tell my son about it, and risk the initial worry that he might have.
Aside from it being gratifying that a) someone other than my mother is reading this and b) something I wrote might have been helpful to someone, Jim also brings up a really important issue that, frankly, most of us instinctively get wrong.  When something awful is looming on the horizon, what do we tell the kids?

The ways to get this wrong are pretty much endless, but I will share a few key examples.

Method #1:  TMI
Several years ago, a handful of schools in Ann Arbor "locked down."  There was a man barricaded in his house with a gun near an elementary school.  The police told that school to lock down, they called the administration, and someone made the decision to lock down every school on that side of the city.  Most teachers did a masterful job of being honest with kids without scaring them, saying things like,
The police are working on something in the neighborhood, and until they are done they want to make sure everyone is safe by keeping us all inside.
One teacher, however, decided the best way to allay the fears of her young students was to emphasize how far away from their school the incident was.  This is not a bad idea, except that in emphasizing that she forgot to deemphasize some other things.  She told her class, "There's just some crazy guy with a gun, but he's far away from here."  Not surprisingly, they were not reassured.

Method #2:  It could always be worse
When I was still a teacher, a student at the elementary school where I worked disappeared over a weekend and was found murdered on Monday night.  Many kids were, understandably, afraid to leave the house and come to school the next day.  One little girl had a pretty bad case of school-phobia to begin with, and this didn't help.  Her father managed to get her into the building, but she didn't want him to leave without her -- either he had to stay or she was going with him.  He started out saying all the right things.
You're very safe here.  I would not leave you here if I wasn't sure it was safe.  The adults here will protect you and make sure you're ok.  I trust them.  You should trust them too.
So far so good.  Unfortunately, he didn't stop there.  He continued,
After all, you're much safer here than I am when I leave here.  I could get hit by a car, I could get shot . . .
Now the student was completely hysterical.  She had gone from being worried about herself to being worried about her dad.

Method #3:  What they don't know won't hurt them
By far the most common way to get this wrong is to assume that, if something will upset a child, they are better off not knowing it.  I have heard of instances in which a teacher died unexpectedly and the staff was notified but none of the students were -- not even the teacher's own class.  This might seem like a simple solution to school staff, but it absolutely destroys the relationships between adults and children.  Kids will find out at some point, and when they do they'll be mad that they weren't told and they'll be upset at the loss of their teacher but not feel like they have permission to talk to adults at school -- after all, the adults obviously didn't want to talk to them about it.

So, how do you strike the balance?  How do you know how much information to share and how much to keep to yourself?  It of course depends on the situation and the age of the child.  But there are two key indicators you can use as guidelines:  yourself and the child.

Using yourself as an indicator means checking in with yourself and your own level of fear and upset about a situation.  If you are substantially worried, the kids will pick up on it.  In the absence of information, they will fill in the blanks, and what they imagine will be worse than reality.  That's a good indication that you need to initiate a conversation with them sooner rather than later.  This is especially true if there is a good possibility that things will get to a point where they can't be ignored.  In Jim's case, if he or his wife are worried about Grandpa and/or there is any likelihood that Grandpa could die, they need to have a conversation.

Using the child as an indicator means sharing a small, succinct, but complete set of information with the child and then opening the discussion up for their thoughts and questions.  In Jim's case, this might mean saying, "I wanted you to know that Grandpa is in the hospital.  He's sick, but we are pretty sure the doctors will be able to make him better."  Enough said.  Now the child can ask why he's sick, or what happens if they can't make him better, or where the hospital is, or when "Sesame Street" is on.  This is his conversation, and wherever he needs to go with it is just fine.

Kids don't come with an owner's manual, and knowing how to talk to kids skillfully about upsetting situations takes some learning.  The payoff, in terms of confident kids and trusting relationships with adults, is more than worth it.  I'm sure Jim knows that already, and I wish his father-in-law a speedy recovery.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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