Talking to Your Children About Current Events

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
05/08/24  12:00 PM PST
talking to children about current events, sexuality

What Should I Say? How Much Should I Say?

Young children and teenagers are curious creatures. They hear and see things that they don’t always understand. They pick up on the emotions around them and can feel overwhelmed or confused.  The natural next step is for a child or teen to approach their parent.

As parents, sometimes we feel the need to tell our child everything we know on a particular topic as a way of giving background.  However, what we may not realize is that when our child asks us a question, they often are seeking a simple answer, and that’s it.

As parents, we make tough decisions about sharing information about current events such as natural disaster or school shootings. That information is shaped by our child’s age and level of ability, and/or by any disabilities they navigate. Sadly, this is the world we live in, and with social media and access to the internet, our children are more informed today than we were when we were their ages. In that sense, our world is a scarier place for our children today. Pre-internet, our generation found out about current events primarily through our teachers, parents or other family members.

What Should I Tell My Child When There is a Natural Disaster or School Shooting?

When your child approaches you, first, get a sense of why the interest in the topic now. For example, if they ask you, “Mommy, what happened in XXX (insert topic of interest here)?” Start with “What did you hear about that? Where did you hear about it?” First, try to gain an understanding of where this information came from and then ask your child to tell you what they know about it.

Then, try “What would you like know?” Proceed to answer the question that is asked of you using 1-2 sentences. Then, stop. Don’t expand or give history or too many details. This may overwhelm your child.

I recall that when my daughter (now 15) was 7, we had a conversation that sounded like this:

“Mommy, what is 9-11?” I asked her where she heard about it. She responded, “We talked about it in Social Studies.” I asked, “What did your teacher say?”

She said, “That it was about planes that crashed into big buildings.” I asked, “What do you want to know about it?” She responded, “Did it really happen?” I stated, “Yes, it did.” She replied, “Did you see it?” I said, “No, I was at work but I saw it on t.v. when I got home.”

She asked, “Were you scared?” I said, “Yes, I was scared for the people involved.” She asked, “Did you know anybody in the buildings?” I responded, “No.” She then asked, “Can I have mac and cheese for dinner?”

Had I not gained the background information from her, I would have started at the beginning and likely given her more information than she could have comprehended. Knowing my daughter, she is still easily frightened and holds on to mental images that creep up at night, before bed, and keep her awake. She would have likely perseverated (fixated) on the details for months to come.  She would have gotten stuck on planes and planes crashing. By asking her questions about what she wanted to know, I gave her exactly what she wanted, which was a lot simpler than what I would have anticipated.

At What Age is it Appropriate to Share Information About Current Events?

There isn’t a right or wrong age at which to share information about the world’s happenings with your child. A good rule of thumb is to share when your child shows interest or asks you a direct question. If your child or teen doesn’t ask, it’s okay for our children to live in a bubble for a little while. Information is very easy to access through social media and search engines. If they’re not asking or showing interest, let them live in their bliss for as long as they can.

How About the Birds and the Bees Talk? How Do I Handle That?

When your child is showing obvious signs of puberty – deepening voice, breast buds, body hair, body odor and an interest in the opposite gender, it’s that time to plant the seeds for that conversation.

Many children with special needs, as well as neurotypical children, can become frightened by their changing bodies, and the feelings that came when a handsome young man or little lady walk by. They may not understand these emotional and physiological sensations and can become confused.

This is a natural time to read books together about your teen’s changing body. For children who like stories, you can tell a creative social tale that addresses specific areas of question or concern. This is also a natural time to discuss menstrual cycles and self care. You can validate that the intense emotions that they are feeling or the physical changes that they are noticing are normal and happen to every teen. Sometimes, our teens just need to know that their experience is a shared one and that knowledge creates great comfort. Take the time to be specific about anatomy, using medical terminology rather than slang, and discussing body parts with positivity and respect.

When is it time to have the conversation about human sexuality and sexual intercourse?

You can wait for the question to be asked, and then answer it. Ideally, by that point, you will have had the opportunity to provide a good amount of information about body changes and anatomy to your child.  For example, you may have conversations about female and male anatomy and how it changes, including physical urges, menstrual cycles, breasts, and pubic hair. This is a good time to talk about how every body is different, such as how some people may have organs from both sexes, or have different internal genitalia than external genitalia (intersex). Your child may also be interested in how some individuals may feel intensely that they are a different gender than their external genitalia (gender dysphoria among those who are transgender or nonbinary). This process may be slow and can take up months or even a year. It’s okay – no need to rush. Just answer your child’s questions as they arise, with age-appropriate information. If you have already had a positive, informative conversation(s) about physical bodies, discussions with your child about sexuality will flow more naturally.

Our children – ALL children, including those with special needs, those who are neurodivergent and those who are neurotypical ones – are constantly evolving little people, whose interests and curiosities are unique and different! Remember, just answer their questions, build on information slowly, and follow your child’s lead.

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