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How I Talk to Sloan About Scary Things

From death to the coronavirus...
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I had my first panic attack at a school assembly learning about earthquakes. I didn't know what a panic attack was at the time, but I knew something was wrong. The same thing happened when I learned about stranger danger and was warned about the risks of getting lost. The fact that I see the same reaction in Sloan makes me hesitant to talk about anything bad with her, but I understand the value that comes from taking control of the narrative. 

There are so many things about being a mother that are both humbling and terrifying. At the top of that list, for me, is the number of matters out of a parent's control. Kids are going to access information at school and process it differently than an adult might, which makes talking about negative or scary things particularly tricky—but the worst thing we can do is ignore reality. 

The first time we had to address a "scary thing" head-on was when my grandmother, Sloan's great-grandmother, died last year. I was initially hesitant to say anything, until my therapist reminded me that she could develop an unhealthy relationship with death that way (how would you feel if someone important in your life disappeared without any explanation?). He helped coach me through the proper response, which essentially came down to using age-appropriate language to make sure she understands, but isn't irrationally afraid, which was a mistake Geoffrey and I made in talking to Sloan when she was younger. 

Long before our conversation around death, G and I used adult language and reasoning to explain to Sloan why she shouldn't do certain things. When she was still in the habit of sucking on her fingers during the day, Geoffrey told her that sucking her fingers would make her teeth bend or become crooked. But a three-year-old doesn't understand that mouths take years to change, not moments. She was probably envisioning her teeth looking like a wicked witch's mouth, and developed an immediate, but irrational, fear of sucking on her fingers. 

When her great-grandmother died, I wanted to be sure she understood, but also didn't feel too afraid of death. I began with a straightforward delivery, "Gigi is not here anymore," then talked about how she's still in our hearts and in the clouds. She was sad but seemed to understand. 

The next week, I was playing Candyland with Sloan when she said, mid-move, "Does everyone die?" A teacher had tried to comfort her by telling her that, but it clearly backfired. Luckily, I was prepared. I explained to her that everyone does die, but Gigi died out of old age. My therapist had advised me that, "Saying she was 'really old' doesn't mean anything to a four-year-old, because anyone who isn't a kid is the same age to her." Instead, he recommended that I exaggerate the "really"s to keep it light without losing the message. When Sloan asked why she died, I said, "Well, she was really, really, really, really, REALLY, really, really, really, REALLY old."

In talking about COVID-19 to Sloan, we've taken a similar approach: We want to make sure she understood why her teachers were taking additional precautions while she was still in school and why she is on a break now without making her feel panicked. Last week, I told her, "You know how people have colds and we don't want to spread germs? We just want to be really, really, extra, super careful because lots of people have colds right now." 

And while Sloan doesn't need to be a part of in-depth discussions about the news around quarantines right now, we allow her to see our emotions rather than suppressing them. If Sloan sees me looking sad, I don't hide it. I say, "Yeah, mama isn't feeling great right now." Otherwise, she might worry that she isn't processing her ability to recognize emotions properly. 

There are a lot of scary and stressful things happening in the world right now, some that I'm even having trouble processing, but with some patience and the right language, my hope is that we set Sloan up for effectively navigating the world she's growing up in. 

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