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Talking about the tough stuff

There's been a lot of difficult subjects to tackle with our children and young people in recent months. Annie Wilmot, a funeral pastor, author and mum-of-two, revealed how we can talk to our children about the tough stuff in our second digital magazineTo read more, visit the web app or download the YCW App via the Google Play or App Store

Explaining some things to my four-year-old and two-year-old can be testing, and trying to help them understand isn’t always easy; so you can imagine it has been an interesting experience trying to explain our current circumstances, being stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to my children. 

It’s something that I bring up with them a lot, especially as I am still so busy maintaining family life and working as a funeral pastor, while my husband keeps up his full-time job as a worship pastor. I’ve had to sit and try to explain why I’m taking more funerals than ever – that I’m helping more families say goodbye to the people that they love, which is obviously linked to the virus – and why we’re unable to go the park or see friends.  

Surprisingly, my sons have been relatively unphased. When we go around the dinner table at the end of the day and discuss our ‘best bits’, my eldest son has continually said that being home with us and having time together has been what he enjoys most, and even though he’s playing over a wall with the neighbour’s daughter, that he enjoys being home. For him, it’s like having almost everyone he loves and wants in one place.  

But not every child will feel the same – and talking to your kids about the tough stuff can be tricky. We all know our children best and what they can handle or how much detail they can understand. For one parent, watching the news and talking about coronavirus is fine, but another chooses not to because it’s too anxiety- inducing for their kids.  

Of course, situations are changing, and so most tricky conversations may have been had by now – but as things develop, it’s likely our children will have more questions that lead to tough answers. Here’s what I found helpful in explaining the ongoing situation.  

It’s unavoidable sometimes 

In our household, we chose not to use the word coronavirus when discussing what has been going on in the world, and actively did not repeat it around the children. But, one morning, my eldest son reappeared from playing in the garden repeating the word to himself, even though we as parents had never used it.  

He had been talking with the neighbour in the garden – who is slightly older than him – and was getting information about the virus from her. It just goes to show you that even in lockdown, when we are cut off from most of our normal social circles in the outside world, we can’t shield our children from the things that are out there, so it’s better to address them yourself.  

Use examples to aid understanding 

It can be tricky to help children see how the external situation relates to their lives, so we used my mother – who has an autoimmune condition so is shielding – as an example. We talked with the boys about how we are going to be staying at home to look after people like their granny, who if they caught the virus could get very, very poorly.  

Using an example was an easy way to explain that we are not staying inside from fear, but that we are looking after and caring for other people, which they seemed to understand clearly. You could use this example if your children are still waiting to return to school, or as to why they cannot have close contact with friends.  

Don’t pretend to know the answers 

What I have found most tricky is when the boys ask me direct questions like: “Mummy, are we nearly at the end of the virus?” - to which I don’t know the answer. It’s hard (and may feel embarrassing) to explain that you don’t know and that you’d like to know too. To combat the unknown, we keep talking about it and ask each other how we feel or what we think frequentlyregularly.  

It’s OK for us not to know or to find it hard to talk about. Children will not be afraid to ask questions, and so we shouldn’t be afraid about not having all the answers. 

Language is key 

It’s key in all these deeper conversations to be really honest and use the actual terms, even scientific ones, to talk about what’s going on around them. For example, if you decide to talk about death, which is a topic which may come up during the pandemic, be careful not to use common euphemisms that may confuse children.  

Younger children find it hard to distinguish that the body and the head are one entity, because we talk about them separately, so one to watch is not to say that someone’s ‘body’ is being buried. Without realising, we may be planting images in their minds of bodies without heads, which is obviously traumatising. Similarly, saying that someone has ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘passed away’ can be confusing as they may expect them to come back or wake up. 

Try not to mull on it too long 

I talk about the tough stuff with my children a lot – as a funeral pastor, we frequently discuss death because it relates to my job. With my eldest, we’re already anticipating the day when he goes to school and they call me in to ask why he talks so often about funerals. ! But for him, it’s just part of his everyday life and he uses it in his play – setting up ‘celebrations’ for people’s lives. It’s just something that goes on, and he talks about it in his own childlike way.  

For him, this may means talking about death one moment, and then suddenly going back to playing, because children have the ability to move on really quickly from grief and sadness to happiness and celebration. While it’s important we have deeper conversations, it’s important we’re not shocked when they don’t linger too long. If they want to go and play Lego and move on, move on.  

Annie Wilmott is mum to two boys, works as a funeral pastor, writer and for a local charity. She has written a book about parenting called Cold Cups of Tea and Hiding in the Loo and blogs over at honestconversation.co.uk.  

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