6 Strategies to Help Young People Cope with Challenging Times

By Kristina Hulvershorn

It can be so challenging to know how to help the students or children in your life cope with complex world events like climate change, war, and myriad other issues.  We walk a fine line as humane educators because we understand that children deserve the truth about the world around them but also know that not every child is ready. Here are some tips to help young people through complex issues: 

1. Learn about issues with them.

For kids under the age of 6, you will likely need to explain context and vocabulary, so being the filter to ensure content is not too overwhelming or scary is a useful starting point.  Helping rephrase things into more concrete terms with examples and plenty of definitions for confusing terms is a great way to start the conversation and gauge how your children respond.  For kids who are older and may be consuming news and other media independently, ask regularly what they are learning about and process it with them.  Look for stories, articles, and documentaries to consume together to round out gaps in understanding, but don’t feel the need to share everything.  The younger kids are, the more you may need to filter some details.  For example, if trying to talk about the current war in Ukraine with a younger child, rather than sharing all of the details about the war, explain that there is a war happening in Ukraine and sadly many people are being hurt and killed. It is very reasonable to prevent them from seeing graphic images and instead try to focus on brave and compassionate things people are doing to help.

2. Check in regularly.

Make time to ask kids what they are thinking and learning about.  Offer space to hear their perspectives and concerns (and do your best to simply listen without interrupting).  Ask them what they know about certain issues and help them make sense of their thoughts and feelings.  For example, you could say, “I know that your class was reading about child labor issues.  What did you learn?  What have you been feeling about it?”  

3. Help them develop media literacy.  

Even very young children are exposed to confusing messaging – including on platforms designed for children.  Learning to question what you hear, find experts and trustworthy sources, and spend time learning about topics is a skill we can begin at a young age to help normalize this process.  For example, one day my daughter came to me and told me that she saw a video talking about lizard people and how they are trying to take over the world. I responded that it’s important to remember that it‘s a good idea to question the things we see and hear, because not everything on the internet is true.  She showed me the video and we were able to talk about how it was actually a video about “myths.”  Because she didn’t understand what “myths” were, she took in the whole video as fact.  It helped give me a space to teach her to always find other viewpoints and sources for information.  She was relieved and empowered to have a healthy level of skepticism for future things she may come across. 

4. Model a healthy response. 

If your children are learning something upsetting, do your best to model being inquisitive, calm, and thinking critically.  By modeling that we can take issues seriously without falling into a pit of despair, you help your children learn to do the same.  By no means does this mean that your honest reactions and emotions should be hidden.  Children are tuned in enough to know when we are hiding things. It is okay to express that something is scary, sad, unfair, or frustrating, but pair it with how you are coping with it.  For example, you could say, “I feel scared by climate change too.  That’s why we do so many things to help reduce our own impact and help others learn about it.  We have a lot of work to do, so I use my fear to motivate me to work hard.”  

5. Give them opportunities to engage and help.

Especially when it comes to issues that speak to your children or seem to trouble them, look for ways to help or make a positive contribution to the issue.  Giving kids a means to help is essential.  Can they come with you to a protest or demonstration? Start or sign a petition? Give a speech?  Speak to, email, or call a stakeholder? Teach their peers about this issue? Raise money to help donate? Help them brainstorm things you can do in your corner of the world to address the issue.  Doing nothing is likely to intensify those negative emotions. For example, you could explain, “Even though we can’t control the things that are happening to innocent people, we can donate clothes and shoes to all of the refugees who are coming to our country.” or “I also really don’t like animal testing.  Let’s go look at our shampoo bottle and I’ll show you how we make sure we only buy products that are not tested on animals.”

6. Remind them of safety.

 Many families have the privilege of relative safety. If your family has the security of shelter, food, water, and love – remind kids of those things.  Help them be mindful of all the safe, happy days they have experienced and remind them of all the people who love them and work hard to take care of them.  A little reassurance can go a long way.  For example, you could say, “School shootings are really scary.  That’s why I’m so glad your school does such a good job keeping all of the doors locked. People also have to be “buzzed in” to get inside.  They actually do a lot of great things to keep you safe at school.”  

Here are couple helpful additional resources:

https://www.npr.org/2019/04/24/716704917/when-the-news-is-scary-what-to-say-to-kids

https://childmind.org/article/helping-children-cope-frightening-news/

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