There is never an easy way to talk to anyone, child or adult, about scary news. We live in a world where news, especially of upsetting information, are fast developing. News is everywhere. Digital media makes it possible that we are increasingly witnessing disturbing news of wars, terrorist attacks, natural disaster, plane crashes, car accidents, social violence, and more. It is almost impossible to control what children are exposed to; it is also not possible to “shield” them from these tragic real life events. Keeping things a secret from your kids might give them a sense of anxiety and inability to cope with information when they find out from other sources. If it is an event so hard for you to even stomach, imagine how it also affects your child who has not developed appropriate coping skills. The best way to protect your child from the scary news, is teaching them how to cope with it.
The first thing to keep in mind when you decide to talk about a scary event with your child is to be honest. Do not disqualify their emotions or try to change the subject. There is no need to lie about what is happening as you cannot “protect” them from news like this forever. If you try to change the subject or dismiss their question, your child is likely going to imagine the worst and come up with even scarier scenarios in his/her head. Of course, they do not need to know all the gory detail of a violent event, keep explanation as age-appropriate as possible. Complex details can get confusing for younger children.
Staying honest about your emotions is also a way to help your children understand the situation. If you are devastated by the event, admitting your emotions to your kids will help them feel safe to open up about theirs too. Be sure not to alarm your kids with your emotions, but help them understand how you are feeling, using age-appropriate language that they find easy to understand.
A general rule of thumb: the younger your child is, the simpler the explanation of the event should be. Children over the age of 10 are probably more able to handle few specific details of the event, they are also able to better grasp complex information that the news entails.
Use this as a teaching moment. Talking about the bad things that has happened can also lead to a discussion about empathy, sympathy, and helping others. This is a good opportunity for parents to model compassion. You might even be able to make the message more personal, relating it to the importance of being nice to others. Give personal examples to help younger children understand.
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Lastly, be prepared for follow-ups. Kids never stop asking questions. They want to know more, they will always want to know more. Days or even weeks later, they might ask questions about the event. Be prepared to help them cope with the aftermath of the event. In cases of events that affect them – school shooting or death of a family member for example, be prepared to help them develop ways to cope and opportunities to talk about their emotions. Do offer some separation between what has happened and what they fear might happen. Reassure them that you are available and open to listening to them whenever they feel uneasy.