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Talking to Your Kids About the Tough Stuff

The terrible images coming out of Haiti may have presented you with an awkward dilemma this week. How do you answer your kids’ questions about bad stuff that happens in the world without making them lay awake at night worrying about earthquakes?

We talked to psychologist Dr. Paul Coleman, author of How to Say It to Your Child When Bad Things Happen to find out what – and what not – to say.

Wait until they're older, if you can. Until around age 7, Dr. Coleman suggests only addressing the tough stuff if kids bring it up first. "They might see it on TV or hear about it at school (or heaven forbid even witness it), and then you have to deal with it. But younger children might not be able to handle it well," says Dr. Coleman.

Keep it black and white. Yes, the world can be a cruel place, but little kids, well, can't handle the truth. "Younger kids need to be reassured that this isn't happening to them and won't happen to them," says Dr. Coleman. Parents may feel like they're lying, since no one can ever be 100% sure of what the future holds, but probability estimates are not something small kids can grasp, and won't comfort them.

Ask questions. Don't assume you know how they feel. Instead, get at their understanding of what happened. "They might be afraid -- or just curious. You have to ascertain that by asking things like 'What did you hear? What do you think?'" says Dr. Coleman. "If they are scared, ask what they're afraid of - don't assume you know. They could be using twisted logic, like they see a building collapse on TV and think it's Mommy's office building. Correct any misconceptions, and then offer assurance."

Don't label feelings as wrong. Let them know that their feelings make sense, and that it's ok to feel whatever they're feeling. Never make them feel bad about being scared.

Get more tips on talking to kids about scary stuff, including the death of a family member. Read it now so you’ll be prepared when the unthinkable happens.