Talking to My Kids About the Unbearable

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos Getty Images

A few nights ago I brought my kids into bed with me for our nightly storytime. Normally, we do this in their bedroom but that night I wanted to put my swollen feet up while I read to them. Plus, I missed the feeling of being sandwiched by their soft bellies. We’d just started a new book and I could barely get through a page without laughing because my daughter had discovered that one of her funny faces really cracked me up, so most of our time together was spent laughing until we all cried. As they were drifting off, my son asked if we could hold hands while we slept so we could wake up at the same time.

I’ve been living in that memory ever since, clutching onto that quiet joy like a life raft. For the past few weeks, I’ve felt myself sinking into grief.

Like so many people, the images and news out of Israel and Palestine have gutted me. Every time I see or hear about children losing their lives, see a parent howling for their baby buried beneath rubble or taken from their home, I feel overwhelmed with sorrow. I think about my own babies — their biggest preoccupation right now being what they’re going to wear for Halloween and how much candy they’ll collect — and I feel a sharp sense of guilt. Somewhere in the darkest part of my brain, the joy of parenting does feel like a zero-sum game, like my happiness comes at the expense of someone else’s.

It’s become hard to hide all of these emotions from my kids at home; they’ve seen me crying as I scroll on my phone or share hushed updates with my husband, and I struggle with how or what to tell them. They’re only six and three, would they understand, or get too scared? One of the most difficult struggles of raising kids for me is showing them how the world really is while still asking them to cherish it, to be open to the complexities of human nature, and yet not be hardened by the realities of what we’re capable of.

To help me figure out how to navigate this and really any tough conversation about the world, I spoke to Melissa Collier-Meek, an associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University.

Like a lot of people, I’ve just been feeling so overwhelmed and sad and not really sure how to, or if I even should, talk to my kids about it. How would you suggest broaching that conversation with a child?

I think first you have to know your kid and know what makes sense, as far as what feels appropriate. My kids are in preschool and second grade, and we have talked about it. I try to make sure that they are aware of what’s happening. But I have to balance that with exposing them to my feelings of uncertainty and safety and concern. The decision to talk to your child about this is very personal, and parents should feel empowered, but also know that children are seeing things on social media, having conversations at school, and we need to know they’ll be exposed to things outside of just our home setting.

Can you share an example of how you might start this conversation with both a younger kid and one slightly older?

So this might be something I would share with my four year old:

Mama’s pretty worried about some fighting that’s happening far away. People are being treated unfairly because of where they live and what they believe. That’s not right. It makes me feel worried, confused, and sad. I want you to know about it because you might hear about it at school or on the news, and because it’s important to think about how you can treat people and how we can work together to make a better world. You are safe with us and at school and if you want to talk more about it we can. Do you have any questions? 

With my seven-year-old, I might include more detail and then follow the lead of her questions to provide more information. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” and to share worry, frustration, etcetera, just make sure that you’re reinforcing it with a sense of safety in your own space.

Sometimes I struggle with how much my desire to have a difficult conversation is really just my desire to share the burden of that pain. Is that selfish of me? When should I be pulling back? Because I also recognize that they’re just kids and shouldn’t have to carry something that they can’t quite grapple with yet.

That’s something that resonates with a lot of parents. I don’t think we can shield them from hard things fully; it’s very tricky to find the balance there. Again, it will depend on your kids, like if your child is prone toward worry and anxiety. Still, I think it’s good for kids to know that sometimes we do sit with uncomfortable feelings, and we don’t always know the answer, but we can still feel peaceful or safe.

It’s also remembering that it’s not one conversation, it’s an ongoing conversation; at first, kids will also be like, “oh,” and then kind of move on with their day. And it’s important to maintain a typical routine with them, particularly around bedtime routines or activities that can help them see normalcy within challenging times.

Is there anything I shouldn’t do? For example, I was watching the news recently and my husband suggested I change the channel because it was getting pretty intense and our son was nearby. 

I would say limit images as well as graphic, continual exposure of social media — that kind of ongoing news in the background really isn’t great for kids. It’s scary. And you want to make sure that the message you’re giving is the message you want to be giving them and when they’re watching TV, who knows what’s happening next. Maybe you have one news radio program you listen to together, so you can provide reassurance, talk to them, see what their reactions are, and follow up as appropriate.

I used Collier-Meek’s advice to start a conversation with my six-year-old son. I was careful about sharing anything too graphic and focused on the grief people were feeling, including making sense of my own. I told him I was upset because people, moms and dads and kids like him, were being hurt, that this cost is why we don’t glorify war, something we’ve talked about many times in reference to not having toy guns in the house. “I know, mom,” he told me. And he did seem to take it in; he held my hand and he asked questions about why this was happening and what it feels like to die. I didn’t really have the answers but promised we could talk about it again and then he ran off to play with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One of the best notes I took from Collier-Meek was the idea that all of us can sit with uncomfortable feelings, knowing we don’t always have an answer. I hope if we do talk about it again, I’ll have a little more clarity, for both of us, but I also know it’s okay if I don’t.

They say when you become a parent, all kids start to feel like your kid, especially kids in distress. More than anything with these kinds of conversations, I just want my kids to know that in witnessing this loss and remembering these children they’ve never met, others might do the same for them if they needed it.

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Talking to My Kids About the Unbearable