By Mark Kline, Psy.D. and Shannon Mackey, LiCSW
News of a worrisome illness understandably disturbs a community. Most people feel apprehensive and unsettled, and we all wonder how to keep our children, and ourselves, safe and healthy. In some cases, our emotional reactions can be as complicated as the actual disease.
Parents and teachers want to be helpful, but also have to manage these reactions. They worry about saying too much or too little, about not having enough information, about saying the wrong thing. Though there is no perfect approach, there are points that can help when talking with children:
- Don’t assume that all children feel what you feel. They react differently depending on their awareness of the situation, and their own unique personalities. Some may be very upset, others not. Some may have many questions, others none. Showing little reaction does not automatically mean a child is hiding his or her feelings.
- Children are remarkably resilient. Some may become quite upset at first, but given a chance to express what they feel, they usually recover. It almost never helps to keep asking them extensive, probing questions. It does help to give them simple, direct information, to respond to their questions and to listen when they want to talk.
- If you receive a difficult question and you’re not sure how to answer, it is often helpful to inquire further. You can say, “What made you think of that?” or “Can you tell me what you were thinking about?” A better understanding of these issues will make it easier for you to respond.
- You needn’t be perfect. There may be questions you can’t answer. It is fine to say, “I don’t know,” and to ask, ”What have you heard?” or, “Did you have an idea about that?” Sometimes, being honest with children will cause adults to become emotional. If you should become upset when talking with children, this is fine. It is often helpful for children to see parents and teachers dealing with their own feelings when it comes to a worrisome situation.
- Above all, coping with a worrisome illness is not primarily a matter of technique, or a particular set of tactics that deviate sharply from one’s familiar patterns of communication. The regular routines of school and of family life are, by themselves, a source of continuity and assurance.
Parents and teachers will rarely go wrong by relying on what is most basic between them and the children – caring and connection. At these times, your presence – just being with the kids, just being available to them, listening and sharing with them – can really help them cope.
Dr. Kline and Ms. Mackey are clinicians at The Human Relations Service (HRS), the community mental health agency for Wayland, Wellesley and Weston. Anyone with questions can reach HRS at 781-235-4950.