How to Talk to Your Kids

An age-by-age guide.

Introduction

father trying to talk to daughter

Alexandra Grablewski

In the aftermath of a difficult event, children often express their feelings through their behavior, whether it's acting clingy, being disobedient, forgetting to do their homework, or even withdrawing. Negative behavior is often a mask for a child's anxiety, says Laurentine Fromm, M.D., a Philadelphia-based child psychiatrist and president of the Regional Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Eastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey.

As you try to help your child, remember to acknowledge his feelings and take your cue from his behavior and questions. The age-by-age advice below, courtesy of Dr. Fromm, offers more guidance about what to say and do. Of course, if your child is still anxious and you need more help, you should call your pediatrician, a mental health professional, or a school counselor.

Keep in mind that if you, yourself, are feeling overwhelmed, you shouldn't hesitate to ask friends and family members to help you with your children. "There is no reason you should cope alone," says Dr. Fromm.

AGES 2 AND UNDER

Signs of distress: Acting like a baby, clinginess, sleeping problems, disobedience

What to say: At this age, children are more likely to act scared than to ask specific questions. If your toddler shows signs of distress or asks about something she's seen on TV, you can say in a reassuring tone, "Mommy and Daddy are worried because something bad happened. But we love you very much and we're not leaving you. We're going to do everything we can to keep you safe." Going into more detail may just frighten your child.

What to do: Turn off the TV when your child is around. Young children are particularly sensitive to graphic images and may not understand that a replay of the tragic events on TV is just that -- a replay. Be physically present and reassuring. Because young children are comforted by routines, try to keep up your child's normal schedule (meal times with the family, bath time with familiar toys, familiar bedtime stories). If you have a childcare provider, make sure she follows your lead and ask her to keep you informed of your child's behavior.

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