How to Talk to Kids about Tough World Events

Over the last decade we’ve had to face far too many of tough world events from terrorism to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami in Japan. It’s always the same pattern:  in the blink of an eye, we are transported from our relatively happy lives to an uncertain fog as we grapple with whatever event had just occurred.

Today, just 17 miles from my home town, in Boston, Massachusetts, another mind boggling, unthinkable event occurred with a bombing at the Boston Marathon. As I type the words, I’m still in a daze it really occurred. But, it did, and making sense of it and helping our kids through it is a task we seem to find ourselves in more than we ever thought we would. As in the past, step 1 is always to take a deep breath. Step 2: realizing we’ll all be ok – somehow.

Today was like so many of the events of the past. I recall vividly one such event a few years back after my husband returned from a trip to London. Just by the expression on his face I knew to hit the off switch on the TV but missed the airing of the news of the event by seconds. Our ten year old daughter had already heard that there were explosions in London in the same area that my husband had just been to. “Was it as bad as 9/11? Do you think they’ll catch the bad guys this time?”

Today, though, it was my 18 year old daughter who had that look of horror on her face – that look that told me something very, very wrong had occurred. She was supposed to be at the mall shopping but instead she was home – racing in to talk to me. “Did you hear, Mama? Did you hear?” Her questions were begging for an answer to a question I felt I should already have an answer for but I was lost. “Here what, honey?” was all I could come up with hoping it wasn’t anything like what I feared.

Silence…for what seemed like forever.

“There was an explosion near the Lenox hotel – near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Our friends are there. Everyone is there!”

I put my arm around her and we moved into the other room and flipped on the news. A few minutes earlier was when the bombs had gone

When I told my 15 year old daughter about the events she became very, very quiet. “Wow. Was it North Korea. Did they finally get their bomb to work? Are we under attack?”

I reassured both my daughters we were all fine – our friends were fine – where ever they were (I so hoped!) and that North Korea’s bombs couldn’t reach the US Shores. But, it was a long afternoon of shock and daze for all of us. They were old enough to understand what was occurring and I couldn’t any longer protect them from the reality of today’s world. That reality had no landed in our State – 17 miles from home.

It’s easy to want to panic when events like this occur – and we all have moments when we do. But, there are actually a few simple things we can do to reassure ourselves and our kids that we will get through this.

1. Remember that kids are not adults. This is sometimes easier said than done because of our own anxieties during the event but is so important regardless of the ages of our kids. One we remember that kids lack the life experience we have to tap into the type of anxieties we have about the world. Children of all ages really only need reassurance about the integrity of their own worlds, their own safety, and the safety of those they know and love. They still have that wonderful leap that everything will turn out fine – especially if we, their parents, tell them that it will.

2. Find out what they know and clarify what they don’t know. It’s tempting to dive into a detailed explanation but kids are easily satisfied with a simply summary of the situation. They only need the basics and reassurance that everyone they know that’s involved is fine.

3. Give explanations that are appropriate for the ages of your kids. Small children, preschoolers and kindergarteners, should be told little about tragic world events. The fantasy world of small children and their lack of understanding about space and time make it difficult for them to grasp what has occurred. For this age group, you may need to let them know that something scary happened far away from home but that everyone they know is safe. As children get older, what you tell them will of course become more detailed.

4. Keep media exposure to a minimum, especially graphic pictures and videos. The media exposure tends to sensationalize the event and drive anxiety higher in all of us. The healthiest way to process any of these events is with judicious use of the media with kids having the least amount.

5. Reassure kids about their own safety by showing them how much they already control their own safety. For all ages, point out how they already control their day to day safety that no one else can take away: looking both ways while crossing the street, wearing a bike helmet, not texting while driving.

6. Keep routines stable. One of the best ways to reassure kids their lives are fine after a tough event is for their day to day lives to remain stable. If their life is disrupted because a family member or friend was injured in the event, the sooner they get back to routine, the better.

7. If any child’s anxiety over the event interferes with school, sleep or causes physical symptoms such as headache, loss of appetite or abdominal pain, consult your pediatrician. Some kids find tough events just too overwhelming, just as we do sometimes. If one of your kids is having trouble coping with today’s event, call your pediatrician for advice.

As we get more information about what happened in Boston today, it will be easier for all of us to feel a bit more at easy. But, one thing we do know is we will persevere – as a community, State and Country. We always do.