When horrific events happen, parents may find themselves awkwardly fielding questions from their kids. How do you explain that scary events do occur while still making your children feel safe?
We talked to Dr. Paul Coleman, author of How to Say It to Your Child When Bad Things Happen, to find out the best ways to talk to kids about disturbing images and events.
- Wait until they're older. Until around age 7, Dr. Coleman suggests only addressing the tough stuff if kids bring it up first. "They might see it on TV or hear about it at school (or heaven forbid even witness it), and then you have to deal with it. But younger children might not be able to handle it well," says Dr. Coleman. You need to know your kid, and what they can handle.
- Keep it black and white. Yes, the world can be a cruel place, but little kids, well, can't handle the truth."Younger kids need to be reassured that this isn't happening to them and won't happen to them," says Dr. Coleman. Parents may feel like they're lying, since no one can ever be 100% sure of what the future holds, but probability estimates are not something small kids can grasp, and won't comfort them.
- Ask questions. Don't assume you know how they feel. Instead, get at their understanding of what happened. "They might be afraid -- or just curious. You have to ascertain that by asking things like 'What did you hear? What do you think?'" says Dr. Coleman. "If they are scared, ask what they're afraid of - don't assume you know. They could be using twisted logic, like they see a building collapse on TV and think it's Mommy's office building. Correct any misconceptions, and then offer assurance."
- Don't label feelings as wrong. Let them know that their feelings make sense, and that it's ok to feel whatever they're feeling. Never make them feel bad about being scared.
- Use it as a teaching moment. Talking about bad things can lead to discussions about how to help others, and gives parents an opportunity to model compassion. Talk about donating to a relief organization, or make the message even more personal. "You can say, 'It makes me think of Mrs. Smith in a wheelchair down the road - maybe we should make her a pot roast,'" says Dr. Coleman.
When Tragedy Affects Someone Your Kids Know
Sometimes tragedy strikes closer to home, and there's no way to shield your kids. If you're dealing with the death of a friend or family member, be truthful about it, but offer some separation between what happened and what they fear might happen. "Say 'Grandma was very old and very sick, but I'm not,'" says Dr. Coleman. "Distinguish yourself clearly from that person so your child can rest comfortably knowing Mommy's not going anywhere."