The world can be a pretty scary place, even more so when you’re little.
With a seemingly constant stream of tragic events and violence that feels like it’s ramping up almost daily, how can parents best deal with the questions and concerns their kids have about what they see on television and online or hear about from friends and family?
“My first instinct is to encourage the families to talk about it, communicate,” said Anne Maurer, behavioral health consultant at Pediatric Partners of the Southwest. “Often, kids don’t know how to talk about how they’re feeling, and so it’s important for the parent to start that conversation and model age-appropriate emotions and responses to what might be going on so that the child can then use that language to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m feeling scared, or sad or afraid for my safety.’”
Maurer said that it’s important for parents to lead any conversation that does come up, so kids feel it’s OK to talk about what’s bothering them.
And while we can’t completely control our children’s exposure to the news and other media, we can work to ensure that at home, kids aren’t seeing a continuous newsreel of frightening images – and our reactions to them.
Child psychologist Michael Oberschneider, who is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services in Virginia, recommends that parents check their own anxiety levels before talking to kids. Children are a lot more sensitive to the feelings of those around them than we may realize, he said.
Kristin Polens, clinical director at Pediatric Partners, agrees.
“I think that oftentimes children feed off of parents’ anxiety around what’s going on, not only in the home and the community but in the world in general,” Polens said. “I think for parents, it’s really important to limit the amount of media that children are seeing, not having CNN on 24/7 when there’s really violent portrayal of what’s going in the world because that’s a really hard thing for children to assimilate.”
So when big events happen – the terror attack in Nice, France, for example – should parents initiate a conversation, or should they wait for children to bring it up first?
“I think that there are various thoughts,” Polens said. “I think that there’s a critical age toward what’s fear-based and what’s reality, around 7 or 8. I don’t know that you should actually bring things up unless children have a topic that they want to address. I don’t think as parents we would encourage them to broach these difficult topics of discussion because a child doesn’t even know what to ask.”
Age plays an important part when it comes to what kids can understand and what their perception of reality and their place in the world may be.
“Developmentally – I think it’s up to 8 or 9 – the kid is programmed to believe that the world revolves around them. And so if mommy’s crying, that’s about me. If there’s something scary on the news, that’s happening around me. That’s the developmental stage they’re in; they’re the center of the universe,” Maurer said. “And so that’s where that communication is important, to make sure they understand that it isn’t about them.”
But, Polens and Maurer said, some good can come from the bad: For all the fear that terrorist attacks, politics and racial strife can bring, it can also be a good time to help empower your kids.
“For children over the age of 7 or 8, it’s always a great opportunity for learning, for education: What does this mean? How can you get involved? How can you teach your child compassion?” Polens said. “To broaden the conversation from just a scenario into a bigger (discussion). How can we help? What can we do?”
And when all is said and done, it’s important to not live in fear, Oberschneider said.
firstname.lastname@example.org. The Washington Post contributed to this story.