'Not our job to fix their fear': Be open, honest, calm when explaining difficult news to children, says expert

As the world grows more interconnected, difficult, troubling and sometimes scary news seems to rise to the surface on an almost daily basis. 

'I do think that children have a right to their fear,' says Win Harwood

Win Harwood is a Windsor-based parenting expert. (Angelica Haggert/CBC)

As the world grows more interconnected, difficult, troubling and sometimes scary news seems to rise to the surface on an almost daily basis. 

And while it might seem instinctual for some parents to try to shield their children from difficult news, parenting expert and personal coach Win Harwood says honesty is usually the best policy. 

What goes on in the mind of a young person when they hear all of this scary news?

"I think it's natural for us to want to protect our children from these scary events. But those days are almost over, because of social media and because … they could hear it from their coaches, they can hear about it from their teachers, from their peers. 

And it's scary and I do think that children have a right to their fear. That's a big piece that parents need to know. It's not our job to fix their fear. It's our job to learn how to help them manage it."

So how would you suggest we do that?

"I think the first thing is that we need to learn how to manage our own fear, because it is a scary time. 

So how are we handling our fear? Because we need to be really calm when we're talking to our children.

Because if we're in some kind of an emotional state, that's not going to help us in terms of guiding our children and supporting them. 

It's not our place to work out our emotions with our children. So we need to learn how to calm ourselves down, how to calm our anxiety, how to calm our fears, because what our children need the most is a calm engaged parent."

Children have this delightful, and also at times annoying knack of asking very difficult questions of their parents. What if a child is asking you some fairly complex questions that you cannot answer?

"There has never been a time in history when there is more need for us as parents to value our time with children, to connect with our children, so that they see us as the safe place for them.

Because they don't have the access to feeling safe that we do. We can listen to the news and hear nothing is really bad right now. Everything is calm pretty calm right now. And so we feel safe right now. 

But children don't have that context … One of the things we need to do is set up the context, because, for example, a six year old might be thinking that all this violence is happening down the street in Windsor somewhere.

... The first thing is that we need to learn how to manage our own fear.- Win Harwood

So we need to say 'This is happening in places that are far away from here and right here we are safe.'

A big part of our role is to help our children to feel safe, to know that they can come to us with any questions, that we will be there to answer them. 

We need to be honest. If we can't answer the question, it's OK. In fact, we could even — with our children — look for answers. That could be a way of connecting with our children. 

I think this is a real call to us as parents to be present to our children."

But our children aren't with us 24/7. They're with their friends, they're at school. How can we help direct children to reliable sources for the information they're getting?

"That's a very good point and I think we need to be it. I think as parents, we need to be the ones that get the information for them. I think as parents that's our job. 

We can't control how a teacher, for example, is going to get information, whether they're going to be willing to answer their questions. We need to be the safe people that they can come to and ask any question they want — about sex, about violence in the world, whatever it is. 

How we do that is we just connect with them. We watch our children. We watch for any feelings of anxiety. 

First of all we need to focus on feelings. That's the most important thing is to focus first on feelings. Are our children feeling fear? Are they feeling anxious? Are they feeling angry? 

A lot of teens are very angry and then we try to identify the feeling, validate the feeling and when they're calm, then we can start addressing the content of answering their questions. And again if we don't know the answer it's not a big problem, that's not a big problem, because we can always find the answers. We can Google the answers."

Bottom line, be as calm as possible?

Calm as possible and connection, connection, connection. Look in their eyes and see how they're feeling."

Answers have been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview below:

It's hard enough for adults to make sense of what's going on in the news right now, with tensions high between the United States and Iran. How are kids to understand? Tony speaks with Win Harwood, parenting expert and personal coach. 6:31

With files from Windsor Morning


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