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How to Talk to Kids About Hard Topics

By Head of Lower School Bill Mulcahy

There is so much good in the world. It’s something that we forget as adults as we watch the news, and take in images of war, violence, poverty, and other forms of struggle. As parents, we often struggle with one of the core questions of parenting—how do we prepare our children to be successful in the world, and to see all the good, while also recognizing some of the challenges? We don’t want to over-shelter, but we also don’t want to overwhelm. It can be hard to strike that balance and to know when to engage in some of the inevitable challenging conversations that come with parenting. 

As a diehard Buffalo Bills fan, I sat down to watch the game against the Bengals with my sons excited for a critical matchup between two great teams. The evening also brought negotiations between my boys and me—they wanted to stay up later to watch the game, and I wanted them to go to sleep earlier so that they wouldn’t be tired and grumpy on their first day back from break. We settled on letting them watch the first Bills offensive drive, and after the Bills kicked a field goal, they begrudgingly went upstairs, and I continued watching the game. A few minutes later, the Damar Hamlin injury occurred. As I processed the feelings that others were feeling as they watched the injury—shock and profound sadness not knowing if he would be okay or even live—I also started thinking about the question that many of us find ourselves asking as parents—what do I say to my kids? 

In the morning, the first question out of my son’s mouth was “did the Bills win?” Without knowing Hamlin’s health status, I responded by saying there was a significant medical situation with a player, and that the game had to be canceled. Knowing that was extremely uncommon, my son responded by asking a series of detailed questions about the injury, to which I said I didn’t know yet, that I was really hopeful that he would be okay, and that there were a ton of helpers on the field (trainers, doctors, teammates helping each other). While I wasn’t convinced that I had handled the conversation properly by any means, I also knew that students would be talking about it at school and that my words could help him shape how he thinks about the situation, instead of having to derive meaning from his classmates  (which can be good or bad depending on the messaging from friends).

Fast forward to the past couple of days, where positive stories and developments seem to be coming out daily about the response to the injury and Damar Hamlin’s recovery. Stories of trainers and doctors assessing the situation quickly and professionally to save Hamlin’s life. Stories of the work that Hamlin has done in his community, and the response to his charitable organization, where over $8.5 million have been donated to his charity. Stories of how football players all over the NFL, from all different walks of life, came together to support Hamlin and his family. Ultimately, a situation that highlighted all that is good in the world.

How do we talk about hard things with our kids?

  • Remind Your Children of “Helpers”—Fred Rogers used to always talk on his show about helpersthose people that kids and others can rely on to support them. It’s important for kids to know that there are helpers everywhere. Not every situation has the type of ending like the Damar Hamlin situation, but kids (and adults too) need to be reminded often that there are always those eager to help and support others.
  • If In Doubt, Talk About It—If you’re not sure whether to broach a topic with your child, check in with them about it. In my example, my son brought it up to me, but I was prepared to talk to him about it, knowing that if I didn’t talk to him about it, he would seek out information from others.
  • Be Open To Questions—An adult tendency is to shut children’s questions down when they are uncomfortable or you don’t have an answer. A common question I have heard at home is about the invasion of Ukraine. While I don’t explain the war in tremendous detail, I do talk with my kids about it, in relatively simple terms. One of my first responses to my kid’s questions is, “how much do you know?” That always helps me frame my response.