Talking to Kids about Our World
The world has been a difficult place to explain these past few weeks, between terrorism in Paris and terrible shootings across the US. It is so hard for adults to wrap our own heads around -- how do we explain these events to kids?
I don't have a perfect answer. But, here is what I suggest and what I think is working okay for my own kids and my patients.
-For very young kids, protect, protect, protect. Until kids get to school age, and start hearing about world events from friends, let them be innocent for as long as you can!! This might mean no longer watching the evening news, not leaving gory newspaper cover stories out and about, and listening to kid music in the car instead of NPR. For the 3, 4, and 5 year old set, this stuff is just too upsetting to explain.
-Once kids are school age (elementary school), I still believe in some degree of shelter, particularly in the younger grades. I do not think young kids should be watching the news or reading newspapers. I think we can keep our kids somewhat aware of the world through family discussions -- for example, by discussing how our government works, how lucky we are to live in a democracy, how we can help people less fortunate than ourselves, etc. Yet, when we introduce these topics to our own kids (as opposed to them being introduced by the media), we can make adjustments for our kids' unique temperaments and sensitivities.
-At the time of the Boston marathon bombings, my daughter was in 3rd grade. I did not tell her about them, she found out at school, and she was furious at me. We now have a "policy" that I will tell her about events of national importance (as defined my me!). I would rather discuss such events at home than have her find out in a scary way at school and have no way to process the information until she gets home. So, I now provide information on big events, but I try to keep the information as simple and to the point as possible. I strongly believe that kids should not watch too many images of traumatic events. Memory for words is different from memory for traumatic images. So while I told my kids about the Paris bombings last month, they absolutely did not watch any news reports or look at any newspaper articles about it. Those scenes were hard enough for me to process.
-Anxiety is driven my discomfort with uncertainty. I talk at work all the time about how we can't guarantee certainty about much of anything. And, once we accept this, our anxiety actually decreases. We stop ruminating and we stop trying overly hard to prevent bad outcomes that we actually have very little control over. I see these big events in the same way. I do reassure my kids and my patients that we live in a very safe country - and how lucky we are for that! But, I do not say that these bad things will never happen "here". They could. It is highly unlikely. But, things DO happen and kids know this. Kids know about 9/11, and the Boston Marathon bombings and about people being out listening to music in Paris last month. By a certain age, they know we are not being genuine if we PROMISE that nothing bad will happen in Philadelphia or Cleveland or Seattle EVER.
-And, at the same time, we have to live our lives. Anxiety means avoiding things we used to enjoy or that should be fun. We don't want to give in to anxiety (or give bad guys the sense that they won). So, I tell my own kids and my patients that it is important to keep living. Although we would not go on a trip to a war-torn region right now, we WILL continue doing all of our usual activities which involve big cities, crowded places, running races, all modes of travel, etc. This is what life is all about -- living, even with a tiny bit of risk.
-What about bad guys? It is very personal how we explain these "Bad guys" to our kids. Sometimes religion can help. Sometimes psychology or neuroscience can help. I can't tell you how to explain these ghastly people to your children, and I won't share exactly how I speak to mine. The important thing is to keep the message simple. Choose an explanation, keep it short, and only provide more info if the kids ask.
I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.