While driving down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, with a view of the Manhattan skyline gleaming outside the car windows, my 5-year-old daughter suddenly piped up from the backseat, "Did you know people flew planes into the Twin Towers?"
It was like someone had knocked the wind of my chest, and my husband had to tighten his grip on the steering wheel. I collected myself enough to respond as casually as I could, despite reeling on the inside.
"Um, yes," I said. "How do you know that?"
"We learned about it in school," my daughter said, matter-of-factly. "It's really sad."
"Yes, yes, it is," I replied.
Up until that point, I had never even considered telling her about Sept. 11. Why would I? Even though we live in New York City, I didn't think a kindergartner needed to think about something so awful that it took me, an adult, quite some time to wrap my head around—and frankly, sometimes, still have a hard time processing. But on the anniversary of the attack, my daughter's elementary school had discussed it in the classroom without me realizing it.
At first I was angry they had potentially shattered my little girl's concept of a world where nothing evil happened, but then, I'll admit, I was a little relieved. Now I didn't have to explain it to her. I didn't have the first clue about how to talk to my daughter about such scary news.
That was about three years ago, and unfortunately, a lot more scary incidents have happened. Try as we might, they're bound to seep into our homes. Whether it's a snippet of a news bulletin on the TV or radio, an adult conversation overhead in public, or something that affects people your child knows, you can't escape it unless you keep your kid in a bubble. Plane crashes, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, police shootings, school shootings, protester riots, child abductions—it's all so sad and scary, but it's the world we live in. We have to be able to talk to our kids about it in ways that will help them understand and handle it.
So, what's the right way to talk to our kids about scary news? I gathered some tips from experts who are part of the Educational Advisory Board for The Goddard School preschool franchise to help me—and you—navigate these conversations. Here's what they had to say:
1. Figure out the real questions your child has.
"When children hear about scary events in the news, which they inevitably will, they are likely to ask for details, such as: Who died? Did it hurt? Will that happen to me? Why would somebody do that? Where were the police? Were they bad people? Where were the parents? Is this a war, etc.?" says Dr. Kyle Pruett, an expert on children and family relationships and clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. "Before trying to answer the question, make sure you heard it correctly. Ask the child the question back, with a 'What do you think?' tacked on the end, and you'll get a better idea of what they are worried about."
Pruett says kids are usually worried about some aspect of their or your personal safety. If so, you then can "offer a specific reassurance," he says, "such as, 'We are all fine as always. This happened a long way away' if that's true. 'The police came when the grown-ups called before more people got hurt. We don't know why someone would do this, but it has never happened there before and probably never will again' or some [similar] version."
2. Limit screen time to non-news coverage for young children.
"TV, smartphones and tablets all have the ability to deliver startling images of running, screaming, terrified people that will bring the trauma very close to your child, no matter how far away you may live from the incident," Dr. Pruett says. "[Tell them,] 'We're not watching TV because we want you to hear the story from us and we can help you understand it better."
3. Keep yourself calm.
"Children are quite sensitive to their parents' emotions even in good times. In worrisome events, they are especially sensitive," Dr. Pruett says. "If they overhear a conversation and want to know what's up, keep it simple, to the level of their developmental understanding. Less is more, so be guided by their questions. If they ask you if you are upset or worried, be honest, but brief, and then reassure them that you will be fine."
"I know my daughters often look for my reaction as they process something they have seen or heard," adds Dr. Craig Bach, vice president of education for The Goddard School. "On the one hand, I want my response, body language and demeanor to tell them that everything is and will be okay. However, I also want them to be comfortable in showing their emotions and to know that I have emotions, too. There are some things that happen that are upsetting, and you probably would not want to hide an emotional response."
"I often think of my parents and how they talked about major events in their life or responded to loss, like when JFK was assassinated or when my grandfather passed away," Dr. Bach continues. "I remember listening to them, but more importantly, I remember how they responded. For example, when I saw my father's eyes well up with tears, it was evident that the situation deeply affected him and that it was okay to show emotion and be vulnerable, that that is what healthy adults do."
4. Follow routines even more strictly than usual.
"The predictable is especially reassuring for kids when the unpredictable is so scary," says Dr. Pruett.
"The reassurance of predictable activities is always more powerful than I anticipate," adds Dr. Bach. "Along with talking with my girls, making sure that they have a sense of regularity in their lives also lets them know that the world will carry on and things will be okay no matter how scared they might be."
Recently, my daughter, now a third-grader, learned about another scary event at school, the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in April. As we were walking home on the Monday after the disaster, we came across a candlelight vigil for the Nepalese being organized in an outdoor plaza in our neighborhood. I tried to rush us past the area because, even though she is now a big kid, I still want to protect her from learning about such frightening events. But, of course, her curious eyes took in the scene, and she surprised me once again.
"Oh, the earthquake in Nepal is so terrible," she said.
Then it struck me. Some of her classmates are Nepalese, including one girl she's been friends with since kindergarten. The earthquake had been a conversation at school that day, as teachers and school staff checked in with the Nepalese students. My daughter's classroom anxiously awaited word from the Nepalese students' relatives. Luckily, the reports that came were good for their families: Everyone was safe.
Will I ever stop trying to protect my daughter from scary events? Probably not. But I'm learning that she can handle it, and in fact, she needs to know so she won't be blindsided by the real world. Plus, by learning about tragedy she can develop skills of compassion and empathy, gain perspective on how her bad days rank in the grand scheme of things, and have opportunities to help others and give back.
"Mom, I need to bring money to school tomorrow to help the Nepalese families," my daughter told me.
"Of course, honey," I replied.
She's gonna be okay.