Our five-year-old son has become increasingly interested in what’s going on in the world, and since I have a habit of listening to NPR whenever we’re driving around, he hears a bit of news each morning and afternoon. (We also have always watched The Colbert Report and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show in front of him, so he’s already fairly savvy about the ways TV news shows, and particularly those on FOX, try to manipulate their viewers.) In the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard news about a major earthquake, mass uprisings across the Middle East, labor protests and social unrest in the U.S., and Qaddafi firing on his own people. We do shield the boy from many news stories, but as my husband works in the news industry, there’s often some kind of news lingering in the background—be it televised, on our computer screens, above the fold of the morning newspaper, or emanating from the radio.
My husband is far better at explaining humanity’s moral failings than I am–I’m better with the natural disasters because I can get all sciencey. I’ve been learning a lot from the spouse, but I decided recently that I should also see what the experts are saying about talking to kids about disaster, turmoil, and tragedy. Here’s what I found:
Do what you can to make kids feel safe. Comfort all kids, but be aware that school-age kids might be wondering if the tragedy will happen to them, regardless of whether it’s a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.
Allow your children to talk about their fears. Don’t dismiss their feelings, and make it clear that you’re listening to what they’re saying—and really hearing their concerns.
If your child is emotionally distraught, help him calm down. Kids are better listeners when they’re calm.
Listen to your child, and respond to her concerns with phrases like “I understand” and “How can I help?”
Physically put your face on a level with your child’s and make eye contact.
When explaining natural disasters, simplify scientific explanations so they’re age-appropriate.
Be truthful but not too explicit. You don’t need to provide a ton of detail to most kids, as it may only serve to inflame their imaginations in unproductive ways.
Explain that disasters like the one your child is worried about are rare in your city/state/country.
Repeat your message for preschoolers and other young children. If you think it’s appropriate, have them repeat the main message back to you. (For example, you might ask, “Are we safe?” and encourage your child to say aloud, “We’re safe.”)
Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” (If appropriate, follow up with “. . .but I’ll find out.”)
Take steps to help remediate the tragedy or disaster, even if it’s remote from you geographically or culturally. Give your child space to respond; you might ask elementary-age or older kids “What should we do to help?” (Depending on the disaster, possibilities might include assembling hygiene kits, donating to reputable charities, or conducting a canned food drive.)
Some of these tips may seem like common sense, but the list has reminded me of several tactics I already know but don’t employ frequently enough.
Not surprisingly, most of these tips could be used to open communication with your child about racism, mental illness, homophobia, poverty, pollution, and all manner of social ills.
Want more? I recommend Children Now’s resource page on Talking with Kids About Tough Issues. Topics include:
- Sex & Relationships
- Drugs & Alcohol
- What Kids See on TV News
- Accidents & Disasters
- Sickness & Death
Feel free to share your own tips in the comments.