Helping kids handle heavy topics

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Like a lot of parents, Salome Tsereteli-Stephens sometimes struggles to explain to her children why awful things happen in the world. Why was there so much destruction from the earthquake? Why did a family’s house burn down? Why did someone shoot kids in a school?

“You can’t shield them completely, and you probably shouldn’t,” says Tsereteli-Stephens, a mom of three from Odenton. “We’re tying to encourage a healthy awareness of the world.... (But) when they ask, ‘Why would someone be so mean?’ I don’t know what to say. I don’t know why.”

“I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer to such questions, experts say.

Riot 1 WFrom riots to natural disasters to terrorism, current events can seem pretty daunting if you are a kid (or an adult, frankly). But experts say that parents can use news events to help children learn to cope with scary things and, in the process, learn about the world and maybe even develop a sense of security.

“You want to tell them that there are sad and scary things that happen, but that they are safe,” says Karin A. Mosk, an Annapolis-based psychologist. “It’s important to talk with children about what’s happening.”

Keep it age appropriate

Of course, how you explain devastating events to a preschooler and how you explain them to a middle-schooler will vary greatly, Mosk and other experts say. Depending on the incident, you may not even want to mention a news event to a young child.

“You have to think about your own child and be guided by them,” says Lucia Martin, Anne Arundel County Public Schools coordinator for school counseling. For example, your decision might be determined by how many questions is child is asking or if he or she has a connection to the event, she says.

Although there’s probably no reason to talk to a 4-year-old about a fatal car crash, shielding older children from all of life’s disasters may actually harm their development, experts say.

“They can’t reach developmentally important places of independence,” Mosk says. Shielding them can heighten fear and anxiety when they do eventually hear about a tragedy, she says.

Events that occur around the world or even locally can give parents the opportunity to discuss history, religion and morality with their children.

Val Mayer, a Port Republic mother of two, reads both academic materials and the Bible as she talks with her seventh grade daughter about current events. They’ve recently discussed violence in the Middle East and school shootings in the U.S. A recent car accident that killed a local young couple was particularly hard to explain, she says.

“She’s cried over some of the things going on in the world,” Mayer says. “I say, ‘Yes, what’s happened is really bad. We don’t want people to be hurt. But in life, there are good and bad things.’”

Be honest, but keep it simple

Mosk recommends asking your child what he or she might have already heard about an event. That way, you’ll be able to correct misinformation and have a starting point for the discussion.

“The most important thing is to answer honestly,” Martin says. “But you don’t have to go into the gory details.” In fact, she says, “Most kids don’t want all the details.”
In that same vein, after a basic recap of the news and reassurances about his or her safety, let your child’s questions guide you, Mosk says.

It may take hours — or even days — for your child to process the news and think of questions.

“Not every child is going to respond to the news immediately, or respond in a way that we might think of as appropriate,” says Molly Gearhart, supervisor of student services for Calvert County Public Schools.

One child might immediately cry; another might laugh, she says.

Photo above courtesy of Arash Azizzada

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