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How Much Should We Tell the Kids?

When events are unsettling, disturbing or frightening even to adults, we may struggle with how to share information and support our kids through it. These events may be news of

disasters, civil unrest, crime, or tragedies within the family such as divorce, incarceration or sudden death. Our first responsibility as parents, teachers and loving caretakers is to reassure children in our care that, even though some things are hard to understand, there are adults around them who are calm, working together to solve problems and, above all, keeping them safe.

Remember, the part of the child's brain that controls reason, judgment and perspective is less developed than an adult's and the part that accesses emotions and survival instincts is more easily activated than ours. It is not necessary to sugar coat or deny the existence of unpleasantness. It IS important to not burden our children with our own anxieties and passions or subject them to the details of complex issues they are not yet equipped to understand. The temptation is to over explain - which may overwhelm the 'thinking' part of the brain. Of course we want to share our values but children need the security of feeling the adults around them are in control first.

  • Limit children's exposure to images of destruction or highly emotional scenes in the media, or to heated arguments among family members and friends, as much as possible.

  • Use age appropriate language to explain only at a surface level and as briefly as possible without being dismissive, casual or overly cheery. Kids can see right through that and it can actually increase their anxiety. You can then offer to answer any questions they have at the time or later. Only answer the question as asked and try to conclude the conversation with an assurance that adults are working on possible solutions.

  • If children are attending school you may want to tell them that there has been an event in the news that they may hear about in school. Again, describe the event in simple unthreatening terms appropriate to the child’s age. Explain that what happened and the news may be confusing or upsetting to some people right now and that if they have any questions they can come to you.

  • Be alert to any change in behavior you might not immediately associate with anxiety around an event in the news. Children will often assume any physical danger is immediate and threatening them, their homes and family. For example after the news of a condominium collapse, children may worry about their own home falling out from under them in the middle of the night and have trouble with bedtime. Use maps and other tangible ways of showing them they are safe. Take a drive around your area so they can see normal activity. They may be especially anxious when you have to leave the home for work or errands. Assure them of your safety and check in with them often.

  • You may remember the oft quoted remark of Fred Rogers about the advice his mother gave him when he would see scary things in the news, to “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Remind your children of all the helpers in their lives. One exercise I have used with children is ask them a series of question about which big person they would want to talk to or tell if: they received a new toy they wanted to try out, they fell and cut their hand, were confused about something at school, were super proud of something they just learned, wanted a hug, wanted to laugh etc. These questions help them visualize non-threatening scenarios where they access their network of caring adults.

  • Depending on the situation or issues that are especially important to you, there may be conversations or activities you want to engage in as a family. These are important expressions of your family’s culture and values. As you think about how to share those values, however, be clear that your motivation is aligned with your child's emotional well being and resist the urge to use a crisis to impress a point. Save the lesson for a calmer time.

  • Model calming restorative activities: spending time in nature, family movie nights, yoga and other mindfulness practices. Tinkergarten Founder Meghan Fitzgerald has offered a lovely blog article focusing on teaching kids wellness strategies for calm. The side benefit of teaching your children how to nurture themselves is that we parents also find our center and become more present to our children. This is the best kind of synergy!

Our children will be less anxious, happier, healthier and gain the most from these teachable moments if they are secure in the knowledge that they are part of a caring community, that they can rest in your love and protection, and that they are valued for just being a kid.

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