Mind Matters: Talking to children about difficult topics

I grew up in a New Jersey mill town that was literally a stone’s throw across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. It may have been South Jersey, but it was not the south, yet when I was young, my mother told me stories about the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses on lawns when she was young. Their bigotry extended beyond hatred of blacks and Jews to include Poles and Italians too. The end of cross burnings in that mill town did not end bigotry there or elsewhere, and we are seeing across the country a rise of hate crimes, from vandalism to bullying at schools to mass murder.

Children, no matter their age, hear stories, pick up some sense of the news either about what is happening in the larger societal level or in their own school and communities. If children are emotional barometers for what is happening in the family in terms of stress and anxiety, so are they also emotional barometers for what is happening in the world at large. It is important for parents — actually, for anyone involved in the rearing and development of children, to find ways to explore with children the topic of hate incidents in a safe and caring way.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network addresses how to talk with children about these matters.

Among the many distressing events, such as school shootings or disasters, one issue does stand out as being ubiquitous in every community — and that is hateful acts. The mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh recently is the consummate hate crime. However, communities throughout the nation are being challenged by other kinds of hateful acts, such as name-calling and bullying at school, taunts on social media, threatening letters to students who are other than white and heterosexual—such as Muslim, Jewish, LGBTQ.

According to NCTSN, adults can and should start talking about national and community events. Of course, the conversation needs to be age appropriate. Parents and adults in authority are role models for children.

Before adults talk to kids, though, we need to reflect on our own reactions to events. What prejudices do we carry that need to be addressed? What personal feelings do we need to understand before we sit down with our children? Do we feel angered, saddened or hopeless? Do we need to process with some other adults first before we talk to our children?

NCTSN suggests checking with your children to see what they already know. Remember that pre-school children can be psychic sponges, soaking in whatever the adults are feeling. Try not to expose them to adult conversations. (I need to remind myself of that one from time to time!)

Find accurate information and truthful accounting in order to allay fears and correct any misinformation children may have. Being role models for our children is a great responsibility. We can use these events to teach that indeed “Hate has no home here.” May those lawn signs prevail where once there were cross burnings. My mother would approve.

About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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