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Trauma expert shares advice on talking to kids about global events

Thanks to social media and a 24-hour news cycle, our children have greater access to global news than any prior generation. And while we as parents can do our best to shield them from learning about uncomfortable topics, we can’t hide them from everything. Kids are curious and turn to us for honest answers. At the same time, they expect us to keep them safe. With the right approach, we can help our kids better understand difficult topics and create a culture of trust in our homes.

Guiding people through difficult topics is a specialty of Gina Moffa, LCSW. Gina specializes in trauma and grief therapy and has worked with thousands of people, including Holocaust survivors through her work at 92Y, an international non-profit. She also runs a private practice in New York City where she helps clients of all ages process difficult experiences and emotions.

I spoke with Gina via email to gain her insights on how families can help our children make sense of difficult world events. Regardless of your views, we can all agree that news of war, climate disasters and world hunger impact our children’s well-being.

There Is No “Best” Age To Start Talking About Current Events

There is no “appropriate age” for kids to start learning about global events, says Gina. How much exposure a child has to the news will determine the type of questions they may have and how we as their caregivers should respond. She explains that a child who grows up in a home where the news is always on, will not only be aware of the news, but will be paying attention to how their parents respond to the information.

For these children, Gina recommends having an age appropriate conversation about what is happening and to emphasize our role in keeping them safe. At the same time, she says it is important to encourage our children to feel comfortable coming to us with any feelings, fears or questions.

You Don’t Have To Have All The Answers

Even those of us who spend hours reading about a topic will still lack the understanding to answer every question our children might have. Rather than brush our kids off or worse, give them false information, Gina urges us to be honest. She says the best thing to do when we don’t know the answer is to simply say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but as soon as I do, I will let you know and we can talk more about it.” 

Consider Your Child’s Mental Health When Discussing Difficult Topics

Children process information differently, and for kids with certain mental health diagnoses, learning about global events can increase stress and anxiety. For children with high anxiety, for example, Gina says that you will want to bolster a sense of safety with them first. For these children, she recommends giving them only the information they absolutely need to know and starting and ending the conversation with an affirmation of their safety and wellbeing.

Choose An Appropriate Time To Talk With Your Kids

Choosing the time of day to talk to our kids about sensitive topics is also important. She suggests avoiding discussing events before bed, unless they bring up questions at the time. On those cases she reiterated the importance of emphasizing our role in ensuring our kids feel safe.

To help foster a safe space for talking about scary subjects, Gina suggests making a time in the day that encourages our kids to feel comfortable speaking with us. She suggests creating an environment that helps our kids feel present, have time to process the information and ask questions.

Be Proactive With Social Media

Despite our best efforts, our children are exposed to sensitive content. Limiting social media helps, however we can’t control everything our kids see (especially when they are outside the home).

Rather than dismissing or minimizing what our kids see on social media, we should keep an open dialogue. Gina says the best way is to ask them about what they saw and how they felt when they saw it.

She reiterates the importance of reminding our kids they are safe and says to keep encouraging them to ask questions.

Share Your Thoughts With Your Children

Parents want to shield their children from harm. We tend to keep our worries from our kids, thinking it will protect them. However, as we know, kids are smart and intuitive. They sense when things aren’t right, or when we are upset.

Instead of hiding our feelings, Gina urges parents to be open with their kids. She notes that most kids won’t share their feelings if doing so isn’t modeled by an adult. She says offering your thoughts and feelings (as appropriate) on what’s happening in the world will encourage our kids to do the same.

Model Effective Self Care

Not long before writing this article, I deleted the social media off of my phone for about a week. I found the content to be disturbing, and I was receiving unkind messages. I have since re-installed the apps, and have been more mindful of my usage. I know I can delete them anytime if my mental health is starting to slide.

This is just one example of self care I take to mitigate the emotional impact of difficult world events. Gina notes that this doesn’t mean we or our kids need to ignore current events. She says our kids will see how we are taking care of ourselves and look to us for guidance.

Find Ways To Help

In the face of global tragedy, we often feel helpless. Solving the world’s problems seems like an insurmountable task. Our kids may feel the same. Gina advises joining with your children to do something tangible to support a cause. This could include pressing that online donation button together, or gathering goods for a drive as a family. Helping our children feel like they are part of the solution can make them feel less overwhelmed.

Remind Kids That It Is Not Their Job To “Fix” Everything

In Judaism, we have a phrase called, “tikkun olam.” This phrase translates to healing the world, and we are taught from a young age about its importance. I agree that we should model positive actions toward making the world better. I also agree that we should include our children in our efforts.

However, as Gina explains, we need to remind our children that it is not their job to “solve” every world issue. She adds that we can tell our children that adults are working to resolve many of these issues on a global scale. We can encourage them to do small things that have a huge impact. Gina notes that through family and community activity, our kids can gain some agency over their fear about what is happening in the world.

Gina Moffa, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in New York City. In the field for 17 years, Moffa has helped thousands of people seeking treatment for grief and trauma. This includes work with Holocaust survivors at 92Y, an international non-profit, as well as being a clinical director for Mt. Sinai Hospital Outpatient Program specializing in addictions. She received her master’s degree in social work with a specialty in trauma from New York University.

Moffa has extensive training in grief work, trauma, cognitive therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, internal family systems therapy, and mindfulness-based relapse prevention for substance use disorder, as well as depression.

Moffa maintains a full private practice on the upper west side of Manhattan. The majority of her practice consists of people seeking support and guidance for a major loss in their life, whether through death, divorce, or an unwanted life transition. One of Moffa’s clinical passions is helping people to navigate their healing from loss and grief in a way that empowers them to find a new sense of fearlessness, understanding, and meaning in the face of unpredictable grief.

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