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Explaining Scary News to Kids

From roadside accidents to school shootings, scary events happen every day. Learn how to discuss them so kids understand — and feel safe, too.
 

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The day Adam Lanza murdered 6 adults and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, my daughter Genie, just five days shy of her 9th birthday, was in her own elementary school. How could a fourth-grader handle such a horrible story? I wondered. I decided right then not to tell her. But when I picked up Genie that afternoon, the first thing she asked was, “Mommy, did you hear about the man who shot all those kids? Why’d he do it?” A classmate — actually, a whole bunch of classmates — had read about the shooting on a cell phone.

I didn’t know what to say. I merely sighed. “Baby, I have no clue,” I answered, honestly. We’d talk more about it over the next couple of days — about mental illness and tragedy and safety — but I’d always be sorry I was at a loss for words when those awful headlines first hit home.

Whether it’s a nearby shooting or a faraway atrocity, there’s no shortage of bad news or ways for kids to learn about it. If an event is hard for you to stomach, imagine how it affects your child, who lacks your perspective and coping tools. The best way to help a kid deal: Be honest. After all, you can’t shield him from the news forever. If you try to change the subject or hide your feelings, your child’s imagination is likely to dream up scarier scenarios, anyway.

Of course, there’s no need to spill every last gory detail. Because kids take cues from what adults say and how they react, the key is to answer any questions in a matter-of-fact way. A good rule of thumb: The younger your child and the less mature she is, the simpler the explanation should be. By the time kids hit 8 or 9, though, they can handle a few specific details and even a TV broadcast because they have a greater sense of empathy and a better grasp of complex issues. Just be prepared for follow-ups, even days later, since kids can take a while to process information.

If you’re devastated by an event, it’s okay to admit that you’re sad; in fact, sharing your sorrow will also give your kids permission to express any feelings they have. Don’t vent your fears, though, or you’ll alarm your children. “Just give a brief explanation of what’s happened, suggest talking about it later, and wait until you’re in a better frame of mind to follow up with a discussion,” says Mary Jo Rapini, M.Ed., a psychotherapist in Houston.

Now that you’ve been primed for the basics of these important conversations, get age-specific advice for dealing with some of the most common upsetting events kids ask about. We’ll prep you with the words you need to soothe your kids’ fears, no matter how young they are.

A bombing or other terrorist act occurs. Your child wonders: Why did they blow up that place?
For little kids, say:
“Some bad people wanted to get attention for themselves and the things they are angry about, and they decided to do this mean thing.”

If your child says it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, agree. Then discuss better ways that people can get attention for their causes, like making speeches.

For kids over 8, say:
“People don’t understand each other sometimes. Some people don’t appreciate how wonderful others who are different can be. Instead they are scared of them and want to hurt them. It’s wrong.”

Then, just as you would for a younger child, you can elaborate on the more constructive ways people might change what bothers them — like voting or engaging in peaceful protests.

No matter what, say:
“Look at all the pictures of ambulances and firemen and policemen coming to help!”

You’ll steer her to see that there are still many more good people than evil ones. Praise the efforts of the first responders so she knows the situation is under control, advises Deborah Best, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.

Your son hears about a natural disaster. He asks: Could it happen here?
For little kids, say:
“I won’t let anything happen to you or our family.”

Younger kids don’t grasp relative risks or remote odds, says Dr. Rapini. Really, they just want to know that you’ll protect them, so give them the reassurance they crave.

For kids over 8, say:
“I don’t think anything like that will ever happen to us. We have a safety plan for our family, and your teachers have one for your school.”

At this age kids can follow basic directions and will take comfort in knowing that there’s a procedure in place just in case. Instill more confidence by rehearsing it.

Older kids can also handle watching a brief news segment, “especially if you’re watching together, so you can discuss what he sees,” says Dr. Best. However, once they've seen it, turn the TV off. When kids see endless recaps, they can sometimes think the event is happening again and again.

No matter what, say:
“This did not happen near here.” Even if the tragedy happened one town over, you can say it was “somewhere else,” notes Dr. Best. Putting distance between your family and the scary event will ease your child’s mind. If he’s a little older, he’s probably learning some geography in school, and you can use that to drive your point home. “Take out a map or look one up online, and show him exactly how distant the place is,” suggests Robert Hilt, M.D., a psychiatrist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “TV can make even far-flung events seem close, so this exercise can be comforting.”

Your daughter sees a photo of wartime victims and asks: Why are those people hurt?
For little kids, say:
“Unfortunately, countries disagree, and sometimes that leads to a terrible fight. But other countries try to find ways to stop it so that people don’t keep getting hurt.”

You can remind your child that it’s better to solve problems by talking — just as she tries to do when she disagrees with friends — but sometimes that’s not always possible with different nations.

For kids over 8, say:
“Other nations want to stop the fighting and may help by sending soldiers.”

If your child is interested, you can describe the reason for the conflict, but keep the explanation brief, saying, for example, it’s about land.

No matter what, say:
“It’s been a really long time since there was any war in our country, so you are safe here.”

If they see injured children, kids may worry that the war will come to where they live. Say no harm will come to them and that our soldiers are working hard to make sure it stays that way, says Jamie M. Howard, Ph.D., of the Child Mind Institute in New York City.

You pass an accident on the highway. Your kid inquires: What happened to the car?
For little kids, say:
“You know how you sometimes fall off your bike and have a crash? Sometimes people also smash their cars by accident.”

You’ll be framing the situation in terms a younger child can follow based on his own experiences, says Dr. Rapini.

For kids over 8, say:
“Sometimes accidents happen when cars don’t work right. But sometimes they happen when people drive too fast, or text, or drink or do drugs. That’s why I don’t do those things. It’s important to drive carefully, obey the rules, and keep the car in good condition.”

It’s an honest reply and starts imparting important lessons. It will also make the accident seem less random and reassure your child that he’s well protected because you’re a conscientious driver.

No matter what, say:
“I hope the people are all okay! Since there is already an ambulance/police car there, we’ll keep driving. It will help everyone more if we don’t cause a traffic jam.”

Kids sometimes want to know why you aren’t pulling over and may assume it means you don’t care. Explain why it’s better if you don’t stop.

There’s a school shooting. Your child asks: Why did that person do that?

For little kids, say:
“His brain was sick.” Young children may not understand mental illness, but they do grasp the general idea of what illness is.

For kids over 8, say:
“He had a disease in his brain that caused him to make some poor decisions.”

An older child may know a little about mental problems and will appreciate hearing how disoriented the perpetrator probably was. It’ll help her feel more certain that normal people don’t often snap without warning.

No matter what, say:
“I know you are probably very sorry for the people who got hurt. Let’s send out a wish for them and their families.”

Children like to feel as though there’s something they can do to help and will model their caring behavior on your own.

After you’ve explained the situation, be sure to follow your normal family routine — it gives kids an enormous sense of security. “Spend a little extra time together, watching a movie or reading stories before bed,” suggests Dr. Rapini. “Night is often when kids’ fears come out, and they may want to talk more about the tragedy then.”

Another way to empower kids is through helping others. “It can be as simple as drawing cards for a family who suffered a loss or collecting clothing for natural-disaster victims,” Dr. Rapini says. “Kids who make these types of gestures gain confidence in their own ability to make the world a kinder place.”

If, despite everything, your child is still fearful after three weeks, consult the doctor. It probably won’t come to that, though. Assures Dr. Hilt, “Most kids process these stories just fine, so long as the people in their lives and their community are supportive.”

Plus:
How to Create a Safety and Evacuation Plan for Your Family

Illustration Credit: Laura Carlin

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