04 Feb Scary News
by Alli Zomer
A typical morning at our house: we load up the bags, head out to the car, forget a bag, rush back inside, then finally settle into the car heading to school. Just about the time we back out of the driveway, the debate begins. My son (almost 5) wants to listen to “talking” (aka the news) while my daughter (2) wants to listen to music. Until recently, I usually sided with my son. I am kind of a news junkie, and I like to know what is happening around the country and around the world. But more and more these days, I find myself turning the dial to music. There just seem to be too many complicated and potentially scary stories – and I don’t always feel prepared to explain them to an inquisitive preschooler. I strive to be direct with my children even when the topic is thorny, yet it can be challenging to balance my desire to be open and honest with a desire to protect my kids from fear and worry.
National Public Radio recently took on this very topic, asking child development experts what advice they have for talking to young children about unsettling topics. Their insights hit home for me.
- Control the Exposure: This was my key challenge in the car – my kids were hearing things at the same time I was, so I didn’t have any time to prepare myself. Controlling the exposure is not about always keeping kids in the dark, but instead it is about not letting the radio or TV be the first messenger. Young children can’t fully comprehend news that is intended for an adult audience, so we as adults are encouraged to listen/read/watch first, then we can decide what to share with them, and how to share it in a way they can grasp.
- Talk about it: Once children are aware of something, either because we chose to share it with them, or they heard/saw it somewhere, we can focus on understanding how it is affecting them. Asking them “What have you heard” allows us to make sure they understand what is really happening, which usually means we will need to clarify a misunderstanding or debunk a myth. Asking them “how are you feeling” allows us to know what is going on inside. Maybe they are feeling scared, or maybe they are feeling confused. And as we talk about their feelings, we can take an opportunity to explore empathy – if they are feeling scared, we can help them understand that other people feel scared sometimes too.
- Avoid labels like “bad guys”: Labels can be helpful sometimes. We use them to help children sort and classify (think blue vs green, hot vs cold, big vs small). But in the realm of news, there are many shades of gray. So the experts encourage us to avoid labels like “bad guys” which oversimplify complicated issues. Instead, we can choose to focus on the action or circumstance rather than the person. When the inevitable “why?” floats up to me from the back seat, I find myself responding with some variation on “Because that person made a bad choice” or “Maybe they did that because they were feeling hurt, or sick, or afraid.”
- We don’t always need the answer: This is one that has taken me time to embrace as a parent. When my children first started asking questions, I wanted to be able to give them the right answer. I thought that was my job. But I have come to realize, whether it is a question about space or a question about current events, I don’t always have the answer. And that is ok. It is just as valuable for my children to understand that the world is complicated and sometimes even adults don’t know it all.
- Look for the helpers: Finally, as seems to be the case a lot lately, Fred Rogers had the answer. On his show he shared advice his own mother gave him, “When something scary is happening, look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” What a profound yet simple message. So the next time my son asks about the wildfires in Australia, rather than focus on the devastation, I will try to share stories of the incredible people who are fighting the fire, protecting animals and rebuilding the homes of their neighbors.
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