The world can be a scary place. Tragedies occur that affect us all, and these awful things can undermine confidence and lead to anxieties and fears that are potentially unhealthy, for both adults and children.
For our children to flourish and thrive, they need to believe that the world is a safe and predictable place. Or to be more precise, that their world is a safe and predictable place.
When our children come to us with questions about these almost unspeakable events, our natural reaction is to spill the beans and tell our children everything. We get very logical. We step into lecture mode. After all, that’s what parents do. We give them answers. Not all parents go with this approach. Some parents sugar-coat the answers while others prefer a direct response. Others lie outright.
And of course if we are affected by what we read, hear, or see, and our children see how we are affected, they can also be affected. Our emotions are contagious. Our fears become our children’s fears. Our anxieties become theirs.
Curiosity or concern?
It is natural that our children will have questions. It is healthy. Particularly when they see us being affected by such news. It is important, even before we start answering, however, that we understand why your child is asking such questions.
What typically underlies our children’s questions is a mixture of two things: curiosity, and concern.
We satisfy our children’s curiosity with brief, honest answers. For example, we may suggest:
“Sometimes people do terrible things and it leaves lots of people hurt. It upsets me that these bad things happen sometimes.”
We want to be sure our children understand that these are rare events. Most people are safe all day every day. These responses will usually satisfy younger children. Older children may follow up with more complex questions. I’ll address how we can respond to those questions in a moment.
We satisfy concern with something altogether more important: understanding, compassion, and empathy. Our children are asking these questions as much out of a desire to understand as a desire for reassurance. They want to know that even if the world is unsafe and unpredictable, their world is safe and predictable.
We might satisfy their concern with responses like:
“Hearing those things makes us feel awful doesn’t it. It makes you wonder how such bad things can happen.”
“It can be so hard to understand what went wrong.”
“Don’t you wish these awful things didn’t happen. Like if there was some special super-hero who got rid of all the bad guys and saved everyone from harm.” These responses tap into the emotions are children are feeling. We show them we understand. We help them feel that even if the world isn’t safe all the time, their world can be because we are there for them and we know how they feel.
Does this mean we should shelter our children?
While our children are young I recommend sheltering them from these tragic stories as much as possible. The truth is that our young children don’t need to know that men kill their wives, that parents kill their children, or that planes get shot down. They don’t need to know that some countries try to blow up people in other countries. All this information will do is undermine their feelings of safety, and impact on their confidence. (I would argue that nobody really needs to know this stuff! It affects us all.)In all reality, most children under around age 10 (or thereabouts) will not be particularly interested, so the cocooning I’m recommending will not be particularly difficult. Just keep the news switched off. And offer empathy if they are exposed to disturbing news or images.
But what if they ask harder questions?
Sometimes our hugs, empathy, and reassurance may not be enough. Additionally, older children are likely to have harder questions about these incidents. But whether children are young or old, the advice about responding to questions remains the same:
- Be honest
- Answer questions briefly and directly
- Avoid sugar-coating
- Don’t give more detail than is appropriate
- Be guided by your children’s curiosity and then stop. Avoid oversharing.
It would be wonderful if we never had to have these conversations because we lived in a world where these things didn’t happen. Sadly, bad things do happen and those things can affect how we and our children respond to the world. Ultimately, it’s our job to guide our children in age appropriate ways through these hard questions about horrible things. But remember, our children don’t need to be told they’re safe. They need to feel safe.
Find the good
Finally, remember that there is LOTS of good news out there. Find what’s good. People who help, who love, who are kind and compassionate. Kids need hope, and there are hopeful stories out there. Share those. Be positive. Life can be – and is – good.