How to Explain Scary News to Kids

Every morning I turn on CNN as I get my 4-year-old daughter dressed and out the door. Which makes me wonder: Is that harrowing coverage of the Ukraine or Malaysia Airlines sinking into her brain and causing any concern? At four, perhaps not yet, but sooner or later, the time will arise for all parents where they'll want to talk about current events with their kids. Only what's the best way to do that without scaring them silly? Here are some guidelines:


guide to current events and kidsDon't just turn off the TV or change the channel. "What we learned from 9/11 is that many parents were just turning off the TV in an effort to protect their kids," says Denise Daniels, author of First Aid for Feelings; she's also developed toys to help kids express their feelings. The problem is, "If you don't talk to kids about current events, the reality is not as bad as what they imagine." So if your kids do see or hear something disturbing, don't just sweep it under the rug. Go ahead and talk about it -- that way, you can clear up any misconceptions before their imagination runs wild.

Ask what they know before you start talking. Don't get ahead of yourself: Before you launch into a long lecture about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, back up and ask your kids, "So what do you know about it?" This will help you cater your response so you're not talking over their heads or telling them stuff they already know (eye roll please).

Don't say, “Oh, don’t worry about that -- that’s millions of miles away." At first glance, this sounds like a great thing for a parent to say to a kid who's seen or heard some frightening things about, say, how tons of Nigerian girls have been kidnapped from school. Yet by saying "that's not happening anywhere near here," you've missed out on an opportunity to build an important skill: empathy. "You don’t want to scare your kids, but you also don’t want to teach them to not care unless it’s happening near them," points out Laurie Puhn, author of Fight Less, Love More. "Instead, explain the measures that their own school has put in place to prevent kidnappings, from guards to video cameras." This can bolster a sense of security and an appreciation for the precautions surrounding them without belittling what’s going on elsewhere.

Play the "what if?" game. So two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down near the Russian border... who cares? At least, that might be some kids' reaction to events that seem to have little impact on their day-to-day lives. To drive home why they should care, have them contemplate a "what-if" by asking, "What if you were the pilot in that plane that was shot down? Or what if that pilot were your mom or dad? How would that make you feel?" If possible, try to recreate why it's important. For instance, even if your kids aren't old enough to vote, that doesn't mean they shouldn't care about the U.S. primaries. To drive this home, hold an election around the dinner table: Should we eat ice cream or cookies for dessert? 

Head into uncomfortable territory. "There are two components to any news story: Facts, and feelings," says Puhn. "A fact may be that there was a school shooting, and a certain number of kids died." That hard part to discuss are the feelings -- of taking that leap to ask "How do you feel?" and expressing your own worries. "When it feels uncomfortable, you are doing the right thing," says Puhn. "Because what kills empathy in children when they grow up is that nobody is facing that uncomfortable feeling. They learn to ignore and suppress it. Don't coddle your child. A far better way is to turn it into a learning experience."


How do you discuss current events with your kids?

Image © Tim Kiusalaas/Corbis; © McEntire      

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