How to talk to children about difficult matters.

How to talk to children about difficult matters.

Our psychologists share their advice on how to help children who are experiencing grief or are in a crisis – from young children to teenagers.

Children and young people experience the same emotions as adults, but do not necessarily have the same ability to understand, process and interpret what is happening. That’s why it is important to be prepared, both regarding what we say and how we say things. 

Various emotions among children in crisis 

Death or separations in the family can cause children to feel worried and sad. But they may also become emotionally impacted by world events, such as the frightening developments in Ukraine and Russia or Israel and Palestine, the climate crisis, or other crises and disasters. For example, have they seen anything on social media that feels scary? 

Children can feel anger, joy, fear, bottomless sadness and immense loss – just like adults. However, the way children process what has happened and what consequences it will have differs from adults. This means that adults sometimes do not believe that children are affected, because they do not react as we do.  

Regardless of a child’s age, it is important for the adults in their lives to be attentive and available. To help children feel safe and make them understand the incidents in their lives.  

It is important to adapt the information you offer based on the age of the child and to pay attention for signs if they are not feeling as usual. Stomachache, headaches, or behavioural changes are common reactions to abnormal events. Continue to calm and reassure the child and show extra patience if they have a greater need to be close to you or seek security in other ways. 

Eight pieces of advice on how to talk to children about difficult events 

Our psychologists share useful advice on how to talk to children about difficult events. 

  1. Ask if the child has any questions and create opportunities for sharing their thoughts and concerns. Listen carefully and open up to conversations. 
  2. Try to answer the child’s questions as simple as you can. Avoid too many details. If you do not have an answer, it is okay to say so. 
  3. If there is a crisis or disaster in the world, you can talk about what is being done to help those affected.  
  4. Try to not let your own worries shine through. Emotions can be spread to others and children can pick up on your worry and absorb it.  
  5. Be honest! Be sure that what you say is true but try not to scare them. 
  6. Think about the way you talk to the child. Avoid strong expressions.  
  7. Remain calm and allow time for conversations. 
  8. Do things together with the child that distracts from what is frightening. The radio, TV or other screens don’t have to be on 24/7. 

Pay attention to the needs of the youngest children 

Even young children have the same feelings as adults but are not always able to clearly express what they need. As an adult, they depend on you to pay attention and try to understand them. In times of crisis and stress, it is common for physical contact between a child and their parent(s) to decrease, although this is actually when they need it the most.  

The youngest children are also easily affected by reactions from people around them. Among young children, common reactions to a crisis include more frequent crying, wanting to be close, having a harder time separating from their parent, sleep disorder, or a reduced appetite. 


  • Closeness and care are especially important. 
  • Try to be in a place where the child feels particularly safe. 
  • Talk calmly about what has happened. 
  • If those closest to the child are overwhelmed, allow other adults to help out.

Talking to preschoolers 

Children of preschool age often need adults to be able to put their thoughts and questions into words. They are prone to so-called "magical thinking”, in which a child experiences the world from their perspective and assumes that they themselves can influence things. In other words, a preschooler may believe that they actually caused a difficult event and feel guilty about it. 

It is common for children in preschool to react by slipping back to behaviours they had when they were younger: struggles to be separated from loved ones, fear of abandonment, stomach aches, feelings of guilt or extreme stubbornness. 


  • Offer more time and closeness. Reassure the child that the situation will change over time and become more normal. 
  • Be clear. If someone has died, avoid terms like “passed away” or “went to sleep”. A child can perceive that such information is not definitive. 
  • Avoid nasty or disturbing details but be sure that what you say is true. 
  • Acknowledge and reassure the child that they are not alone. 
  • It can be good for the child to talk to a trusted adult outside the family. 
  • Physical touch is important. 
  • Young children process difficult incidents more slowly, so you may need to explain some things more than once. 

Talking to older school children 

At this age, children take great strides in their development and begin to understand difficult incidents. They also start to think about causality. This means that as an adult, you need to spend more time explaining and helping a child understand what has happened. 

It is common for children of this age to react with increased anxiety, to have trouble with sleeping or being afraid that more difficult incidents will occur. They often suffer from headache or stomach ache, trouble with concentration and can show irritation or aggressive behaviour. 


  • If someone has died, let the child grieve in their own way. There is no wrong way to mourn. 
  • If you suspect that a child is worried about something, ask. 
  • Make it clear that the child could not influence what has happened. 
  • Ask specific questions about their emotions. For example: “How do you feel inside?” 

Talking to teens 

Children in their teens understand what has happened and that it will affect the future. At this age, it is common for them to feel that they must “take adult responsibility”. As a result, they can tend to shut down their emotions. Adolescence is a sensitive time and it´s common to want to fit in and to not feel different from one’s friends. 

Teenagers often react to difficult situations by becoming sad or acting out. Other common reactions include becoming more introverted, feeling more guilty or acting more self-conscious. 


  • Show that you care and that you are there for the teen. 
  • Let them know you are available.