One evening as I was watching the six o’clock news, a report came on about the trial of a man accused of sexually assaulting and murdering an eight-year-old girl. Having been following the trial, I was so engrossed in the story that I didn’t even stop to think about my five-year-old son who was playing quietly in the corner of the room.
It wasn’t until my husband’s voice jolted me, telling me to turn it off before my son could hear, that I changed the channel. But it was too late: My son was already asking me, “What happened to that little girl?” I froze, not really knowing how to answer. Obviously, I couldn’t tell him the truth—or could I? How much bad news can we really share with our kids?
“Kids at that age cannot put that information into a reasonable, comprehensive perspective. They will think in more black-and-white terms,” says Paul Coleman, PsyD, a psychologist and author of How to Say It to Your Child When Bad Things Happen (Prentice Hall).
I admit I lied to my son that day. I told him they were still searching for the girl in question, because I wasn’t sure what he could handle emotionally or how to explain it to him. Knowing just how much information a child can grasp is as individual as the child, so how can you address scary news?
1. Be Mindful of Your Child’s Emotional Development
“A parent should already have some indication from the child’s reactions to other events—real or imagined—on what the child can handle,” says Dr. Coleman. “A child easily frightened by things (people dressed up in costumes, certain scenes in a kids movie) would not handle very disturbing information. When it comes to news, all children want to know is how the news will affect them personally, or affect their family.”
2. Don’t Dismiss Your Child’s Feelings
Do not admonish your child for admitting she is scared or sad. “Allow her to express what she feels and allow her to talk about it,” says Marjolaine Limbos, PhD, a Vancouver-based registered pyschologist.
3. Take Their Concerns Seriously
Some children might be disturbed by news that they hear or see. If so, it’s up to the parents to validate those fears and provide reassurance. “Once you know their fears, you need to explain why the scary situation would not apply to them,” says Dr. Coleman. “Or if it could apply, you need to explain the precautions you, as a parent, are taking to protect them. Kids want to believe they can trust their parents.”
Marjorie Wingrove, a Toronto mom of two, had to make such a call two years ago when news surfaced that a man had been killed at a nearby library with a crossbow. Her son, Reilly, then eight, asked his mother to explain what happened. “I never brush the kids off when they have questions. I will be honest in an age-appropriate way,” says Wingrove.
“I told him someone died at the library, but everyone else was safe. My instinct was to let him know we can still go to the library—that what happened doesn’t happen all the time.” Reilly was able to process the information to the best of his ability and move on, she says.
4. Provide Facts If Your Child Asks for Them
Five years ago, Golnar Khosrowshahi’s twin girls, then five, had questions when they came across a disturbing newspaper photo of a little girl who’d survived an earthquake. “I wanted to answer their questions but wasn’t sure if they should have seen the photo and then thought, ‘Why shouldn’t they know what’s going on?’” says Khosrowshahi. This inspired the Toronto mom and management company president to start GoGoNews.com, a site children (and parents) can visit to read news in an educational and non-threatening way.
Although Khosrowshahi says the site avoids some subject matter, such as sexual abuse or assault, she adds that the site is very to the point. “Kids need facts,” she says, using the articles that went up on the site about the anniversary of 9/11 as an example. “We describe what happened and the sequence of events. It helps them understand something that is difficult to understand.”
5. Make a plan. Some fears can be a good thing. If there are reasonable dangers similar to ones that are in the news that your child might face, have her practice coping strategies for them. For instance, teach your child how to respond in the event of a fire, or how to escape a potential abductor. “Fear is all about the unknown. By giving them strategies, there are fewer unknowns,” says Dr. Coleman.
More on Talking To Kids About Difficult Topics:
• Should Your Child Play with Toy Guns?
• Teaching Stranger Safety to Kids
• How to Talk to Your Children About Death