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

Click next below for more tips on talking about heavy topics.

 More tips on discussing heavy topics

Fire WLimit the news

Chances are good that at some point, your child will overhear about a tragedy when you are chatting with friends or in the car over the radio. You might also be surprised just how often current events are discussed on playgrounds, on bus rides, and through social media, experts say.

That said, no one is recommending you keep CNN on during family dinners.

“If there’s a chance they’ll hear about it, it’s best they hear about it from you, rather than from a place where they might not receive good information,” Martin says.

When her husband’s Nepal trip was extended by the devastating 2015 earthquake, Tsereteli-Stephens had to tell her young children about the international tragedy. But she limited screen time so they wouldn’t be exposed to the disturbing images, she says of her 7- and 8-year-old. She also has an infant.

“They knew he was there to help children. He called when he could, and that was important,” says Tsereteli-Stephens, who also travels internationally for work.

Look at the positive

Fred Rogers, the late PBS television host of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” is often quoted by adults struggling to reassure children about news events: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’"

Experts also recommend talking with children about opportunities to help.

As part of their faith, Mayer says her family looks to support local families who are victims of misfortune. “Sometimes it’s just taking a meal,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a donation.”

Parents are also wise to use current events as a chance to talk about safety measures, experts say.

Although “shelter in place” drills are upsetting to parents, preparation prevents kids from feeling helpless, Martin says.

“It gives a feeling of control if you know what to expect,” she says. “Because the drills are routine, the kids know what to do.”

Tsereteli-Stephens recently found herself sitting with her children in the closet of their Anne Arundel County home during a tornado warning, discussing damage caused by tornadoes.

“We talk about how we can be prepared,” she says. “And we pray.”

When to seek help

There will be times, however, that kids feel news events more acutely. Children who have experienced recent upheaval — such as the death of a grandparent or a move — may also have more trouble processing news, Mosk and other experts agree. And children with anxiety issues may be more sensitive to tragic news events.

If your child repeatedly asks questions about the news, or needs to be reassured often, it could be a sign that he or she is having trouble, experts say.

While it might seem counterintuitive, it’s actually better not to dwell on the topic, Mosk says.

“The more you’re talking to the anxiety, the more it grows the anxiety,” she says. “I tell patients, ‘I’m not going to talk to your worry-self.'”

Mosk and other experts recommend parents defer “worry” discussions to a specific time each day (not at bedtime) for a limited time. That way, they are still addressing the child’s feelings, but not allowing those thoughts to take over, Mosk says. “It’s a way to manage it,” she says.

Developmentally, children tend to be more susceptible to worry at 18 months, 3 years, 6-7 years and again at 12-13 years when they’re exposed to more adult themes, Mosk says.

But experts say behavioral changes, school avoidance, nightmares and disruptions in daily activities are reason to seek professional help.

The most compelling early childhood research studies have shown that the best predictor of how a child will cope with a tragedy — be it an earthquake, bus accident or shooting — is how the parent is coping, says Jennifer Thorpe, a Severna Park-based child psychologist.

“If you model a sensible, practical approach, to the extent you can — if you’re OK — it will help your kids be OK,” she says.

By Laura Barnhardt Cech

Tips for talking about tragic events

If you are struggling with how to discuss a disturbing event with your child, here are five things to keep in mind.

  1. Ask kids what they’ve already heard about an event.
  2. Use their questions to guide the discussion.
  3. Limit media exposure.
  4. Talk about what to do in emergency situations and what safety precautions your family, school and community are already taking.
  5. Don’t discuss disturbing events or topics at bedtime.
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