Last week’s attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, is just the latest in a long line of news stories that remind us we can never be completely safe. From school shootings and terrorist attacks to the everyday tragedies of racism and child abuse, many parents wish to shield their children from bad news. Kids, however, often know and understand more than adults give them credit for. So age-appropriate discussions can help allay a child’s fears, while slowly introducing him or her to a world that’s not always safe.

Here’s how to balance giving your kids information while preventing unwarranted fears.

Ask What Children Already Know

Parents tend to assume their children only know what they tell them. But kids are crafty, and curious. If they want to know something, they’ll find a way to learn about it. And if your child is in school, under the care of a baby-sitter, watches TV, spends time online, or spends time with other kids, he or she has plenty of access to other sources of information.

Begin the discussion by asking what your child knows. You may find that he or she is fixated on specific pieces of news, or has inaccurate information. For example, a very young child might believe monsters attacked in Charlottesville, while an older child might not understand why people were so angry in Charlottesville. Be prepared to answer the questions your child actually has—not the questions you think he or she should have.

Limit Access to Graphic News Coverage

There are many arguments to be made in favor of being informed about the world. But there’s absolutely no reason children should be exposed to graphic images, including photos or videos of terrorist attacks or dead bodies. Among young children, these images can be particularly traumatic, and may trigger nightmares, irrational fears, and even panic attacks.

Turn off the news, and consider getting your news on the radio instead. Older children who want to read about the news should be encouraged to ask lots of questions, and to avoid clicking on videos and other potentially sensationalized links. If you haven’t already, now is a great time to talk to teenagers about being a savvy consumer of the news—including how to detect fake or biased journalism.

Talk About Values

Tragic news poses a wonderful opportunity to talk about why you have the values you do. Young children are just learning about the world, and rarely understand why adults have the rules they do. Try putting those rules in context. For example, “The violence in the world is really scary. That’s why we are never violent in this family, and we don’t hit.”

With older children, you can get into deeper discussions of values. For instance, the Charlottesville attack is a great opportunity to talk about racism. Consider discussing why it’s so important to treat people equally and fairly. Mass shootings pose a valuable opportunity to talk about good ways to cope with anger.

Don’t forget that discussions of values should not be a one-way street. Don’t just be instructive. Ask your child about their values, about their experiences in the world, and how they aspire to deal with those experiences. And don’t shy away from soliciting their advice and opinions. Asking them to think through real-world scenarios is a great way to inspire critical thinking and compassion. For instance, you might ask your child how she would deal with a person who makes racist comments at work.

Empower Children to Help

Children can be remarkably compassionate and self-sacrificing. Many react to tragic news with a strong desire to help. So empower this side of your child by looking into opportunities to provide real assistance. You might volunteer with a charity that works with impoverished children, donate money from a lemonade stand to an anti-violence group, or take a child-friendly class on fighting racism together. Ask your child what causes matter to them, then find ways to inspire them to creatively help others.

Note that forcing your child to volunteer is likely to backfire. Only encourage your child to contribute if he or she shows real interest in doing so.

Assume Your Child is Listening

There was a time, early in infancy, when your child really couldn’t understand what you said. Some parents carry habits from this period well into their child’s adolescence. Rest assured, your child is listening, and understands more than you know. This means you should not talk about things you do not want them to hear in front of them, even when they are distracted. Be prepared also for your child to eavesdrop, and to seek out information when it’s not readily available.

Whether you notice or not, your child is listening. Model words and behavior you want him or her to emulate.

Monitor Your Child for Signs of Deeper Concerns

Particularly in sensitive, anxious children, and in children who have a previous history of trauma, scary news could trigger anxiety, depression or self-harm. Monitor your child for signs indicative of a deeper issue, such as sleeplessness, changes in eating habits, difficulty concentrating, behavior changes, fear, crying, and in teenagers, drug use. These symptoms demand treatment, whatever the cause. So consider working with a psychotherapist, or ask your child’s school counselor for resources. Prompt treatment often quickly resolves the issue.

Mr. Rogers told children to "look for the helpers" when he saw scary things in the news. This basic but poignant message can give children peace of mind that, even when bad things happen, there are helpers there to make things better. 

Here's hoping that better weeks lie ahead for our country.

References

Moreno, M. E. (2017, August 07). How to talk to your children about tragedies in the news. Retrieved from http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2646851

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