Author Trevor Romain has spent 30 years working with children, often those who have experienced trauma or difficult life paths.
He's worked with former child soldiers in Africa, children of military parents who have been deployed, orphans and children who have cancer. He's also served as president of the American Childhood Cancer Organization.
"I found I was able to connect with kids, even in traumatic situations," he says.
People would ask him how he did it. Though he's not a parent himself, he's written a new book on how to talk to kids, "Connecting With Kids in a Disconnected World." He'll be reading from it Monday at BookPeople.
One of the things that he sees adults doing is "they tell kids what they think they need to hear instead of listening to what kids are asking for," he says. "So often, when we see kids who are stressed or in a tough position, we tell kids they are going to be OK," he says.
"That's really abandoning the child," he says. "It's not addressing the problem."
It also might make them feel like they don't have a right to feel how they are feeling. Instead of telling them it's all going to be OK, we should acknowledge their feelings and ask for their input to make the situation better. "They become resilient," he says, when they are involved in this process.
He likens it to the difference between adults showing the kid sympathy and empathy. If they think there's a monster in the closet, instead of saying, "There's no monster in there," say instead, "Wow, let's go look in the closet." You're solving the problem together and understanding what they are feeling.
Or if a kid is going through a tough time, you can tell them a story of when you went through a tough time as a child. "It's transparency," he says. "They believe you."
In the book, he tells the story of a little boy with cancer who asked what will happen when he dies. His mother didn't want to talk about that and instead told him not to worry, that he wasn't going to die.
Instead, Romain talked to the kid about what he thought would happen and drew a picture of his own grandfather who had died. That way, the kid would not have to worry about being alone if he died.
Or the time he was at an orphanage and a kid asked him to help him find his mommy. Another adult told that kid that all the mommies would be found. Instead, Romain asked that child where he thought his mommy was. When he answered, "In heaven," Romain then could talk about his own daddy dying, too.
"All he needed was someone to be with him where he was," Romain said.
Some other things that work are getting down on their level by kneeling or squatting, using self-deprecation or humor, or sitting down and drawing with them and watching them open up.
Adults think of children as harder to talk to because adults have common experiences you can relate to. With kids, even when something seems logical, it's not logical at all. Kids don't have the ability to understand and think ahead to the future the way adults do, Romain says.
He wrote the book for anyone who wants to connect with children, such as teachers, camp counselors, nurses — anyone who works with kids. It can be helpful for parents, too, though what he sees is that sometimes parents don't go deep enough in conversations with their own child. Sometimes they also try to overprotect and prevent their child from failing.
"Their instinct as a parent is you're giving them the best life instead of giving them the tools to be resilient and to understand that failure is not permanent. You have failed many times," Romain says.
Romain says he always learns from kids. "I walk in thinking I know everything, and I realize those kids know way more than I will ever know," he says.
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