Right Start Blog

How to Talk with Children about Uncertainty

By: Dr. Kelly Lane
Country School counselor and licensed psychologist Dr. Kelly Lane offers professional advice for talking with your child(ren) about the uncertainty facing our world.
As we move through this unpredictable time, ‘uncertainty' seems to be the word of the hour. Whether in conversations about plans for school, emails about returning to work, or following the news about the political and social unrest in our country, it is clear we are in a perpetual state of being uncertain at the global, local, and individual levels.
Living with uncertainty is challenging. Human beings crave information about the future in the same way we crave food and other primary rewards. Our brains interpret ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by kicking our stress response into overdrive, making it difficult to focus on anything other than creating certainty. While adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, chronic, day-to-day uncertainty is exhausting to us and our brains.
Waiting for certainty can feel like torture. Some argue that the fear of the unknown is possibly the most fundamental fear we have as human beings. Scientists have found that job uncertainty, for example, takes a more significant toll on your health than actually losing the job. Other studies have consistently demonstrated that uncertainty is positively correlated with fear, worry, anxiety, and depression.
As adults, our fully developed prefrontal cortex allows us to take in, process, and use information about uncertainty in a meaningful and hopefully helpful way. We can also use prior experience to rationalize and predict the likelihood of things eventually improving. We can independently access support and resources to help us cope when needed. In contrast, children do not have the cognitive development, life experience, and skill set to deal with the uncertainties we face. Subsequently, they feel even more out of control than we do.
It is up to us as the guiding adults in our children's lives to help them process the uncertainty we are facing and manage its accompanying feelings. Below are a few points to consider:
1. Assess how you are coping. "Uncertainty tolerance" is one's ability to manage or accept uncertain or ambiguous situations. Individuals with a high tolerance for uncertainty are generally better able to accept and adapt to outcomes they can't predict or control. People with a low tolerance for uncertainty, on the other hand, are more likely to experience anxiety and stress associated with the unknown. Assessing our tolerance for uncertainty is vital because our children will do as we do. They pick up on our stress, irritability, and grief. While these feelings are all normal and healthy for our children to observe, how we cope with them provides a template for their future coping.
2. Start conversations. We often think that we can protect children by keeping information from them. This is particularly true when we don't have all the information we think we need to communicate effectively. However, conversations about all of the uncertainty in our world are everywhere these days. Chances are pretty good that your child will overhear someone (maybe even you) talking about the uncertainties of our world right now. Chances are also good that they have been exposed to inaccurate or developmentally inappropriate information through the news and other media sources. While some children will go to their parents with questions, many children will keep their questions to themselves.
Much of what kids hear right now is confusing and conflicting. In the absence of some explanation, children will begin to interpret information in a way that makes sense to them and may imagine something far worse than what is happening, which can increase feelings of anxiety and helplessness. Furthermore, children may be left with the impression that they have to deal with these feelings on their own because their parents have not talked to them about it, which creates an unnecessary burden.
3. Be honest, in a developmentally appropriate way. Children need to know that their parents and caregivers are safe and can be trusted. This is foundational to establishing a secure attachment, which is a strong predictor of resilience and future social-emotional development. Talking to your children about uncertainty in an honest and developmentally appropriate way can serve as a protective factor that buffers against the potential negative impacts of uncertainty. 
One of the most effective ways to begin these conversations is to focus on breaking down what we don’t know and what we do know. You can start by asking your child about what they know. Categorizing accurate information and questions in this way will help fill in gaps in their knowledge and allow you to correct misconceptions. From there, parents can make developmentally informed decisions on what children need to know and understand to feel safe. For example, in talking about when the pandemic may end with an 8-year-old child, a parent may say something like, "We don't actually know how long the virus will last, or when things will get back to normal. I promise to keep you posted as we know more. But here is what we do know: We keep staying safe while finding ways to make this a special time in our family. You are going to keep learning new things, and there will still be ways for us to have fun while we wait for things to get back to normal.” 
When deciding what to share, and how much to share, remember to consider the following factors:
  • Your child's temperament 
  • Your child's individual needs, prior experience, and existing coping skills 
  • The age of your child 
    • In general, younger children need concrete language and concepts, and closed-ended questions. In contrast, school-aged children usually do well with being asked questions that elicit a more open-ended response. Older children and teens can be spoken to with more depth and complexity, and about more abstract concepts.
4. Validate your Child. Accept your child's feelings and concerns; try to resist the urge to "fix" their feelings or dismiss them. Additionally, it is important to remember that children don't always express emotions in the same way adults do. Many times, fear and anxiety may come out as anger, combativeness, or withdrawal. Other times, children's reactions may seem disproportionate to the situation, with children reacting in extreme ways to seemingly minor demands.
While challenging, it's ideal if you can learn to look beyond your child's initial reaction and focus on feelings and connections. Ask them what they're feeling, and help them name the emotions. Directly acknowledging and normalizing emotions will foster a child’s need to feel safe, seen, and heard. That connection will build resilience, and they will likely understand the feeling of being understood and supported more than their frustration and disappointments.
5. Foster a practical acceptance of uncertainty. Once children are connected, it is helpful to provide them with alternative ways of thinking gently. Let your children know that change can be positive, but we have to work for that to be true. Help your children remember a time when change occurred that they were unsure of, but ended up being okay.
It is easy to avoid uncomfortable emotions and difficult conversations; however, it does little to help in the long run. Cultivating an emotionally safe environment that exposes children to appropriate information, reassurance, and tolerance of discomfort will help them get through this turbulent time and set the stage for their future adjustment.

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