Explaining Complex Topics to Kids

Parent Q&A

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  • Hi BPN folks, hope everyone is finding ways to stay safe, healthy and supportive/be supported in this crazy time. Up until now, I have not really 'questioned' how I was explaining the pandemic to my toddler and preschool kids. I have been saying that there is a virus and that a lot of people are falling sick, so we must wash our hands and be careful not to touch our faces. Sometimes they will catch a glimpse of the news if I have it on, but I try not to have it on too much in their presence (anyway, they already get a lot of screen time these days!). When they clamor to go outside or see their friends, I tell them we have to stay home because a lot of people are sick (it's a bit like a broken record). When they see me with a mask outside, I tell them this is so that other people won't get sick. However, I have a friend who has chosen not to tell her school-age kids anything (they are all under 9) because they get very worked up and anxious - a choice that obviously fit her family better. It also prompted me to wonder though - how are other people managing to explain to their children what is going on and the reasons for the huge adjustments they've had to make? How do you balance telling a child about grave matters and the fear/anxiety that would surely arise from that? I have not noticed a huge difference in the behavior of my kids, but I just wonder what they must be thinking/feeling.

    I just saw something in the New York Times on this topic - when I went to look for it, I found lots of resources online (including videos). I'm not sure this was the article I was thinking of but it gives you an idea


    Our oldest is not quite 3 yet so we've been keeping it super bare bones. He already knew that "germs make you sick" and we've been telling him that we can't play on the playground, hug grandma, etc because we don't want to share germs so that no one gets sick. We have told him that there are a lot of germs right now, and when there are less germs we can go back to the playground, etc. I'm not sure he gets it, but he has stopped asking as many questions. I'm a little worried about what sort of ideas we're giving him generally about germs and human contact -- will he be forever afraid of getting too close to people? -- but we'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. 

    This is very child specific and how ready they are to handle this emotionally.  I told my kids the truth since they are elementary and preschool aged and answered all their questions.  My preschool-aged one knows that there is a bad virus out there and that we are trying to keep us safe and keeping the grandparents safe and that is why he cannot go to their house now.  My elementary aged kids understand a bit more and asked about their chance of catching it and whether the elderly grandparents are at risk of dying and we told them their grandparents are at a much higher risk but are staying safe and that is why we cannot see them and do all their shopping for them, so hopefully grandparents will be ok.  They are a bit worried about elderly family members, but once they were reassured that even though there is risk grandparents are being very careful, are not saying that at least this means that they no longer need to go to school as they are loving this being at home time, and otherwise seem happy and ok emotionally.  I knew my kids will be ok which is why I shared a lot of details, but i would not have done it if I suspected that my kids will be weighed down by the worry over it and would be having a hard time dealing with the information. 


    advances the theory that avoiding things that cause anxiety in the short term will cause more anxiety in the long term.

    I have a 5 year old and a 2.5 year old. The 2.5 year old we haven't really talked to that much, except to tell him we need to wash hands, etc, to protect ourselves from the virus. The 5 year old has a lot more questions. Similarly to your family, we've talked about virus making people sick, what we need to do to protect ourselves, why everything is closed and the things we'll do "once the sick is gone." His teachers at his preschool also talked about it some as they were closing and have talked about it more on their video calls.

    I'm surprised that your friend can successfully keep the information from her children. Do they not ask questions about why school is closed, they can't go to parks and the like? And if they interacting with others it would seem like it would come up.

    My kids are four and seven years old, and I've taken pretty much the same approach as you. We don't watch TV news, so they haven't been exposed to that, but we do discuss our concerns in front of the kids. They are not showing any signs of anxiety and are content with our current situation. They think that hanging out with mom and dad at home all the time is pretty fun! I believe that your friend's approach is more likely to create anxiety. The kids will pick up on the fact that something scary is going on, but they will think it's so scary that their parents won't even discuss it and that they aren't allowed to express their concerns. It's impossible that they are unaware of what's going on. My children's teachers had told them about it before schools closed, and all the kids were talking about it.

    I had been approaching it the same way as you with my 4.5 year old, however in the past week or so my son has all of a sudden been refusing walks and getting anxious if we leave the house. I was surprised as I didn't think we were being overly dramatic about it or frankly talking about it much at all, but they are so perceptive. Would love tips as well on how to address anxiety in young kids around this topic. 

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Preschooler with "big questions" - do they all do this?

Jan 2006

My 3.5 year old daughter has suddenly started asking the really big questions: how did I get in Mommy's tummy? How did I get out of Mommy's tummy? Who made us? What are we made of? Will Mommy die? (This was after watching Charlotte's Web.) Who is Jesus? Who is God?

I'm not so much concerned with how to answer those questions, though suggestions on how to handle them, how detailed to get, are certainly welcome. I'm more interested in know whether others have gotten these questions by such a young child. She is a very inquisitive child and she's very serious about getting the answers. Any thoughts? Mommy of the inquisitor

I can relate! My 3.5-year-old is also an ''inquisitor'' and I was smiling while reading both your posting and the one about the 3.5-year-old asking about safety and ''bad people.'' My daughter started with Phase I of these questions about a year ago and they have only gotten harder! She has had several lengthy rounds of questions about conception and childbirth-- how do babies get out, how do they get in, where do the ''seed parts'' come from in us and how do they get made, is the reason Mommy isn't going to make another baby right now because she or Daddy ran out of ''the seed parts,'' and my favorite ''What happens when the mommy seed part doesn't get the seed part from the Daddy? Does it just all come out like ooky stuff?'' She wants to know about God, about Saints (from the song ''When the Saints come marching in'') about ''bad people'', about why we lock our doors, about why people are bad and whether or not they can learn to be good. She went through a long phase of questions about death that started more than a year ago when a neighbor's cat died and still talks about it pretty regularly, often looking for assurance that I would love her even if she died (!!) She once spent an entire dinner questioning her grandparents about when they would die (''Will you die here or in your house or in the hospital?'') She wants to know where electricity comes from and if it is like the energy she gets from eating healthy food, how do lightbulbs work, how does a blue shirt get blue, why do trees lose their leaves, and on and on and on. Big questions and small, she has stumped me more than once! I think it is a normal part of being a preschooler. It's pretty amazing, isn't it? Caroline

Oh, I can so relate!!! I have a 4.5 year old who has been asking all of those big questions for over a year now. We have had lots and lots of such discussions -- I particularly remember one very big-deal epistomological discussion at 1:00 in the morning (when I was totally cross-eyed, and he was crying about the ''Will Mommy die?'' and ''Will I die?'' questions); and another long series of discussions about Jesus dying, when my boy caught sight of a (rather graphic) painting at the back of our church. The things I might recommend are below (obviously, you need to match these up with your particular belief system -- I'm just sharing what worked for us as examples): (1) don't get overly detailed, but do be extremely consistent -- what has worked for my son about the ''Why do people die?'' type questions has been the reply (over and over, I might add) that usually people die when they are very old, or if they get very sick. The question was asked many times, and he seemed to want that same answer over and over (at least, it seemed to satisfy him, where another answer would not). (2) try to find a concrete analogy that works. For my son, one of the most upsetting notions about dying was that he would die before me, and would go to heaven without me, which he found very troubling. What worked there was to tell him that heaven was like preschool: if he went there before me, he would hang out with lots of people to play with, and God to take care of him like a preschool teacher does, and that after awhile I would come. He likes and understands preschool, so this really made him feel better. (3) find kids' books that address the question. Reading the story of Good Friday through Easter in a children's Bible (lots of times) helped to deal with the questions about Jesus. Karen

Your preschooler's questions are totally normal and I think her curiousity is very healthy. My 4-year-old has asked, ''what is time?'', ''what is a magnetic field?'', ''how did I get in your tummy?'', ''what is God?'', and many more. I think it is only natural to ask these things when you are trying to figure out how the world works. Liz O.

One thing I have learned about kid's ''big'' questions is that they are usually just looking for a small piece of the puzzle so I always ask them what they think the answer is first so that I can determine what they are really asking or what information they are really looking for instead of launching into a big complicated explanation that they may not want. This hopefully opens up a dialogue, a working out the answer together. Also, I think I have gotten better about giving straightforward and short-ish answers. I also try to take my time with my answer. They deserve a thoughtful answer and sometimes I tell them I need to think about how to answer so I will ''get back to them''. Hope this helps. isn't parenting fun!

I'm just shooting from the hip here. Tell her an age appropriate answer. How did she get into your tummy? Tell her that you and daddy put her there with your love and hope. She started out very small in your tummy and you gave her love and hope and that every day she grew until she was born. Tell her she came out of your uterus through your vagina. She has got to know that she has genitals, I mean, after all, every boy on the planet knows he's got a penis and testicles early on. He may not have the words. Why keep our daughters in the dark about their genitals?! As far as whether you will die...The question is how do you cushion the truth that indeed you and I will eventually die. Try telling her this...Ask her what happens in Charlotte's web? Tell her that when you remember people that you love when they die they continue to live in your heart. Tell her that it is sad when people we love do die. Tell her you hope to live for a very long time. Talk to her about what you did when someone that you loved died. Tell her how you remember that person. The ''God'' question: Here is where you have to look at your religious beliefs. Augsburg Fortress puts out some really good children's books about God. There are three of them one is titled, Where is God?. I do believe that here is where you have to ask yourself: What do you and your spouse believe? How do you both want to raise your kids? Try talking to a pastor or priest for some guidance. The question about ''Who is Jesus'' look above. What do you think? Yes, these are all big questions. These were ''big'' questions we posed to our parents at one time. How did your parents handle or not handle this? How did that affect you? How do you want your child to feel? These are not ''big'' questions to her. She is curious and you will find out that a simple answer will suit her happily. Be careful that you don't lie to her or cause problems later on... like telling her about a stork- I mean - come on. Keep in mind what your comfort level is. These questions will not stop and it is best to be prepared. Tell her the truth, you don't have to get into details. Just keep it age-appropriate. She will thank you for it later on. Bring on the ''big'' questions

I'm curious to see the other responses to your post since I was thinking of asking the same question. I've been getting similar questions from my almost 3.5 y/o. He asked me how his sister came out of my tummy. When I gave him the brief answer, he continued to question, ''but how did she GET down there? Did she crawl?'' and ''but how did she get OUT?'' So he was wanting very specific answers to those as well as continuing w/ questions & discussion we have about dying, God, heaven, people/pets we know who have died, etc. It seems that my brevity isn't appreciated. Details, that's what these inquisitive minds want; and will accept nothing less. I'm not aware of anyone else whose preschoolers have similar questions/discussions, but I have a feeling it might have something to do w/ their being so verbal. It might be that other kids this age have these questions or thoughts but don't know how to verbalize them is the same way. I'm still maintaining brief answers as long as he allows it (like not going into great detail b/c he'll lose patience by the time I finish answering.) Let's just hope they continue asking us questions when they're older, instead of going elsewhere. Paula C.

I think those are totally typical questions for that age, at least for my 3.5 year old they are, and many other kids that age I know. She's stumped me more than once as I didn't want to upset or confuse her (if she asks about an animal dying, something about God, etc.). I've realized, though, that she is usually satisfied with a pretty simple answer; there is no need to go into a big existential explanation. They are not always as sophisticated as they seem! For example, my daughter often shows an interest in church-I referred to her once as the Little Minister-but as it turns out what she was really interested in was wearing a dress and having cookies. (: It's pretty interesting what they come up with, though. Julie

Talking to kids about estranged family members

March 2004

My 6 year old has been asking about his grandparents (my parents) as well as my siblings. I have been estranged from them since he was 1, after my mother died and my dad insisted that my siblings have nothing to do with me because I could not make it for her funeral. My relationship with my family has always been difficult, and became especially strained when my sister became a fundamentalist Christian and convinced everyone in the family that I was a heathen of sorts. My whole family is very bigoted and intolerant toward anyone who is different than them. I am the only member of my family to go to college and have been severely criticized over the years, for among other things, the fact that I have friends of other races and nationalities and do not go to any church. What should I tell my son? My husband's parents are both dead, so he has no other grandparents. I would rather not deal with it at all, but I fear it will not go away. K.

I would keep it age appropriate and say that unfortunately your family members are not nice people and that they are mean to people that don't look or think like them. I think that this could be a good opportunity to teach that one should not tolerate bad behavior and one should stand up for oneUs values even though it might mean having people mad at you. anon

Talking to kids about adults' problems

May 2002

We've dealt with some serious stresses over the last couple of years -- life-threatening parental illness and job transitions; and I've been wondering how other people talk about difficulties around their kids (do they always wait until the kids are asleep?) and to their kids(ages 5-8). My daughter seems to be responding to the stresses we're under by having nightmares of the animals chasing her variety a couple of times a week. anon

I feel for your situation, and have had to navigate some of those same waters. A couple of years back, I came upon a great book, called ''How to Talk to your Kids About Really Important Things'', by Charles Schaefer and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo. I came upon it at Nolo Press of all places, and it has been a great resource. It includes chapters on, among other things, HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, divorce, camp, hospitalization, alcoholism, divorce, remarriage and step-parenting, and so forth. One of the main premises of the book is to be a parent that is ''askable'', because kids need to know, and will find answers to their questions, one way or another, either from you or somewhere else. If they feel comfortable asking you, and you are able to respond with integrity, then you retain a relatively large measure of control over the answers (thus helping to shape their response). I also dealt with an illness when my kids were four and six. When I first learned I would need surgery, I sort of walked away down my own path until I could really come back into the family picture with all the information I needed, and then to communicate effectively to the kids what was going on, translate things into their terms, make it managable for them, be prepared to respond to their questions with drawings and calendars, and most importantly, I think before I went into surgery I had done a lot of my own homework, so I could tell them what to expect without interjecting a lot of my own anxiety. And of course I was blessed to have a great outcome, but I have a permanent condition that still requires management. I have also taken great care to let the kids know they are in no way responsible for my well-being (my son, at the age of five, once offered to be in charge of reminding me to take my daily medicine - I thanked him for his thoughtfulness but told him directly I would never burden him with the notion that he is responsible for looking after me to that degree (his relief was palpable). As far as communicating with your husband, I'd invest in a weekly baby-sitter, or even drop the kids off with a friend/relative every now and then, so you could enjoy the comfort of your own home without needing to be concerned with their care. I found it really critical to stay closely connected to my husband during that time, and sometimes my energy just wouldn't hold out until everyone was tucked in. I did not discuss these big ticket items in front of the kids. My two, and it sounds like your daughter as well, are just barometers of the emotional life of the household. Not that they should be fully protected from all of life's events, but the thought of anything harming mommy or daddy is just really too much to bear for small people. I would find it very natural that your daughter's concerns about your welfare would express themselves in many ways, including bad dreams. Now for some good news: kids are resilient, as we all know, and for my own son and daughter, they have a greater awareness of their own health and bodily functions, and how hardships come, are handled, and go. We continue to talk as things come up, but always with a great mindfulness as to what is age appropriate. Best of luck with your concerns and the well-being of your family. Deborah