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How to Answer Kids’ Hard Questions: Supporting Resilience through Family Narrative

Often when young kids ask parents hard questions, they are seeking emotional support, not necessarily data. In this article, I’ll share:

The balance between dismissing questions or overwhelming kids with information is hard to navigate. Here’s a north star to follow: kids aren’t looking for facts & forecasts, they are looking for safety. 

A doodle of otter mom and child.
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How can we soothe kids and help build resilience to future adversity? By choosing responses to these questions that highlight strengths, identity, and relationships – kind of like this otter mom who (instead of being dismissive or toxically positive), helps her little otter know that they are in a family that will keep them safe and will be there for them even through really hard things. 

A Simple Response to Hard Questions from Kids

Kids notice more than we think, and young minds are hard at work making sense of a world that doesn’t always give them information in a way that they can make sense of it. A caregiver’s role, then, includes answering questions big and small to help young brains understand a complex world and their role in it.

As kids mature and their brains grow, the hard questions a child asks become bigger and more focused on their external environment. When young kids ask questions about politics, policy, war, or the economy, they can be overwhelming to a parent or caregiver – many of us may feel the pressure to have a tidy, upbeat answer to questions that might be confusing for us as well.

1 TIP FOR FAMILIES IN CRISIS: When a family experiences challenges that upend norms, make it a priority to keep family traditions going. Research suggests that this is one of 8 Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) that can help kids weather challenges with resilience.

Not Having A Tidy Answer Can Model Thoughtfulness for Kids

For many of us, our imagined ideal of the “perfect parent” has a ready response to every tough question. But big questions don’t have simple answers.

Kids may actually benefit more from seeing a parent thoughtfully consider and respond inadequately, while emphasizing strengths and family ties, than from having all their questions answered with a positive-spin. Raising emotionally intelligent adults means modeling for kids that it’s okay to not know an answer, or to need time to think, research, or consult an expert before responding.

Raising emotionally intelligent adults means modeling for kids that often it’s better to not have an answer than to make a judgment call without being well informed. 

Answering Hard Questions from Anxious Kids

Kids with anxiety particularly look to the adults in their life for information that can soothe them. Anxious kids may ask harder questions, be unsatisfied with vague answers, or ask repetitive questions for soothing reassurance.

Most parents of anxious kids have a natural drive to provide answers that soothe, but a growing body of research suggests that the answer to anxious kids’ questions is a little counter-intuitive. Yale’s SPACE model for parenting anxious kids (see my sketchnote version here) suggests that setting boundaries on anxiety-provoked repetitive questions may reduce anxiety for kids.

Both Yale research and a 2019 study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have found that as parent learns to navigate their own anxiety, they can better help support their children through anxiety-inducing situations by modeling coping strategies the child can employ for themselves and letting their children know that they are supported. 1

(Click here to read more about Helping Kids Cope or to explore my parenting-related articles.)

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A doodle of otter mom and child.
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It’s Okay Not to Have Answers

The most helpful answer to a big question sometimes looks like admitting, “I don’t know, but I’ll be there for you no matter what happens.”

It’s honest and genuine while emphasizing what really matters: relationships. A simple answer like “I don’t know” can help both adults and children to feel the big feelings involved with big questions, and to work to manage and navigate those feelings with healthy coping skills. Emphasizing family connection also frames kids’ questions in a way that builds resistance, read on to learn how.

How Emphasizing Family in Response to Kid’s Questions Builds Resilience

When you don’t have an answer for a kid’s tough questions, emphasize what is true: you’ll be there for them, you’ll support them, and they’ll be loved no matter what comes.

See, kids who believe they are safe are adults who grow into humans who can move in the world and take relational risks. Kids who grow up in a home with a parent who communicated that they were safe and loved and surrounded by a community grow up to be adults who can connect with others for emotional support, long after their own parent has passed2.

Parents tend to think kids want them to have the answers. In reality, for kids, the presence of a caring parent is the answer to their biggest worries. 

Parents tend to think kids want them to have the answers. In reality, for kids, the presence of a caring parent is the answer to their biggest worries.

As we sit with the questions our children bring, we can help build resiliency and emotional regulation by strengthening narratives. Narratives, or stories, are how we navigate this world. Our brains use stories to make sense of experiences, and those stories shape how kids (and adults) interact with the world. When our children ask these big questions, we can intercede in this story-making process in a way that can highlight aspects of safety, strength, and protection.  

Love this design? Take it home:

A doodle of otter mom and child.

Just like the otter-mom in this comic responds to her worried otter-child, we can respond with the reassurance that our children are not alone and will be taken care of no matter what they face.

Click here to read more about supporting family resilience through therapeutic activities.

Final Thoughts

As for us grownups: Be good to yourself. Offer yourself this same reassurance when thoughts get dark. Take extra care of yourself – today, this week, this month, this year. The current state of the world feels heavy, and we can often feel helpless in the face of it. While we may not be able to change all of the circumstances around us, we can take a moment to stop and care for ourselves in the midst of it.

Image Description for Screen Readers:

A doodle of an otter mom and child in a two-toned teal ocean with waves all around. In a speech bubble, the child otter is asking, “Mom, what’s going to happen?” 

In a separate speech bubble, the mother otter is responding, “I don’t exactly know… But I know that we are kind and brave otters who are going to take care of each other no matter what.” Underneath the otters is white text that reads, “When we don’t have answers for kids’ big questions, framing an honest response within a story of safety and resilience can soothe anxiety while honoring their questions.”

Image created by @LindsayBraman.

References:

  1. Lebowitz, R., Marin, C., Martino, A., Shimshoni, Y., & Silverman, W. (2019) Parent-based treatment was efficacious as cognitive-behavioral therapy for childhood anxiety: A randomized noninferiority study of supportive parenting for anxious childhood emotions. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 59(3). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2019.02.014 []
  2. Bethell C, Jones J, Gombojav N, Linkenbach J, Sege R. Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(11):e193007. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3007 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2749336 []

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