How to Talk to Kids When You Don't Have the Answers
Three guiding principles
Posted September 3, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Uncertainty. It’s the word of the hour. Whether in conversations about plans for school, emails about returning to work, or social media posts about politics, the word is everywhere. “There is so much we don’t know,” people say, and “these are unprecedented times.” The phrase “uncharted territory” is, I would bet, getting more air play than it has in a very long time.
It’s all true, of course. We are indeed living in a sea of uncertainty, which, as I wrote in my last post, our brains interpret as threat. Numerous articles have centered around how best to cope with the resulting anxiety.
But in addition to our own coping, the question of how to communicate uncertainty to our children remains. Here are three guiding principles that can help:
1. It’s up to the grown-ups to start the conversation. “My daughter hasn’t asked about going back to school yet,” a client recounted recently. “And so we haven’t mentioned it.” It’s a familiar refrain, and as parents, we’re all too happy to collude with our children’s silence. This is particularly true when we don’t have all of the information we think we need in order to communicate clearly and compellingly, or when – as in the case of school this year – we know things may change at any moment. But the idea that we need to have all our ducks in a row in order to begin conversations with our kids is a misconception, and a risky one. Why?
Conversations about things that are uncertain – say, in this case, plans for school – are everywhere these days. Chances are good that your child will overhear someone (maybe even you) talking about this, and will have questions. They will either keep their questions to themselves, having understood the implicit message that they are not supposed to know this information, or will come to you with their curiosity. Either way, the burden becomes theirs to carry, a reversal of roles that may well lead to a range of negative outcomes. Over time, if this becomes a pattern, your child may ask themselves what else Mommy and Daddy may be keeping from them and learn to adopt a stance of hypervigilance, of scanning their environment for things they don’t know about, things that may be dangerous – a way of being in the world highly associated with increased levels of anxiety and emotional/behavioral dysregulation
So how do we start?
2. First and foremost, be honest. Children need to know, on a deep, internal level, that their parents and caregivers are safe, that they can be trusted. In fact, this trust is foundational to the establishment of a secure attachment, which, in turn, is predictive of children’s resilience and healthy social-emotional development moving forward. Setting this precedent – that we, as parents, can always be trusted – is, therefore, critical.
“We think we are going to stay out of the city for now,” a parent told me during a recent consultation. “And so we are going to tell our son that his old preschool is closed. [Note: it is not closed.] It just seems like it will be too confusing otherwise.”
Here’s the thing, though. Few things are more confusing for children than having a parent lie. Would this child know their parent was lying in this case? Probably not (although there is certainly a chance they would find out). And yet, lying to our children is bucking a key parental responsibility: letting our children navigate the messiness of life, with all its complicated feelings, and showing them that we will be right there next to them as they do. I challenged this parent, as I would challenge all of us: Are you worried it will be too confusing for your child, or are you worried you will have a hard time tolerating your child’s emotional reactions when you set a clear boundary – that, even though the old school is open, you, as the grown-ups in charge, are choosing not to send them?
Children take their cues from their parents. If you are not confused about a situation – if you present it clearly and in language they can understand – then they likely won’t be either. This doesn’t mean that they won’t have feelings about it. But the message needs to be that we – as parents, as human beings – can handle big feelings. And so can they. We can do hard things, and we will do them together.
So what do we say instead? Exactly that.
3. Things are uncertain. And we can handle that. There is what you say, and then there is how you say it; the distinction is essential. When we speak with our children about uncertainty, it’s the latter – the way we phrase things, our tone of voice, our body language – that is most important. When discussing children's emotional dysregulation, psychologist Dr. Rebecca Kennedy often draws on the helpful analogy of a plane hitting turbulence, with a parent or caregiver in the pilot's seat. The analogy works here as well, although in this case it's all of the surrounding uncertainty, and not our children's emotional state, that is responsible for the plane's unsteadiness.
Picture yourself as a passenger on a plane that starts to tilt, dip, and swerve as you’re in flight. You feel anxious, unsure, scared. For the sake of this particular example, let’s say that the pilot hasn’t experienced this particular type of turbulence before, and doesn’t know the exact navigation route.
In one scenario, the pilot gets on the intercom and says somewhat haltingly, “So, um, it seems there’s some turbulence. Yeah... I’m not sure why. I’ve never encountered this sort of turbulence, and, uh, well, I’ll figure it out. Please stay calm and quiet back there; I really need to concentrate and the noise is distracting.”
Do these words instill a feeling of calm and confidence? No. The pilot is clearly hesitant and insecure – so much so that your anxiety, as a passenger, apparently holds the power to throw him off course.
In the next scenario, the pilot speaks clearly, assertively: “We have hit turbulence. I have piloted many planes through turbulence. I know it feels scary back there, but I assure you: this plane will land safely.”
Even just hearing these words in my head helps my nervous system to settle. I feel taken care of, safe. We can do this – I may be scared and unsure, but there is an expert steering the ship who knows we’ll be okay.
How do the pilot’s words look when applied to our current uncertainty? Something like this:
“Things are uncertain. We don’t know what is happening with your school, and even once we do know, things may change. I know this feels hard, sometimes for me too. But I have been through hard things before, and I know how to do it. I will be right here with you, and I will make sure we get through this.”
Though we may be uncertain and scared, and perhaps unhappy about who is piloting our big, collective plane right now, our children need to know that we are the ones who are piloting their small one. And we will do everything in our power to ensure that the plane lands safely, turbulence and all.