Your child walks through the family room as the sound of gunfire spills from the television, and he inquires about images of soldiers and civilians.
“Why are those children crying?” A question a mom is forced to answer as her daughter looked at the front page of USA Today while standing in line at Walgreens.
Your sleepy-eyed first grader peeks over your shoulder as you scan CNN on your ipad with morning coffee, and he is confused by the images that appeared before you had time to scroll forward.
The news is everywhere. On our television screens. On the newspaper stands of every grocery store, drugstore or Starbucks. On our tablets and phones. We want to stay connected with the world and we have little eyes and ears around us at all times.
Our kids overhear conversations at school, at home and in a dozen other settings where we exist as families. It’s becoming more and more difficult to selectively expose them to age-appropriate content about current events in our media-saturated culture.
Over a decade ago, Melissa, Sissy and I boarded a plane to New York days after 9/11 to counsel with individuals and families whose lives had been tragically affected by the terrorist attacks on our country. We returned to countless questions from parents on how to best talk with young children about the events happening around us.
How do I explain to a six year old that two planes flew into the Twin Towers?
How do I help my daughter understand that more than 3,000 children went to bed without a parent on September 11, 2001?
We are often at a loss of words in the wake of these tragedies. Am I giving too much information? Is this age-appropriate? Am I creating more fear or alleviating anxiety?
Let’s examine some ground rules for talking with young children about difficult current events, and next week we’ll discuss how to engage adolescents around tragedies taking place around the globe.
- Keep it simple and concrete. In terms of their cognitive development how they view the world, young children are in concrete thinking. They see the world as black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. Using complex, abstract terminology only makes it more confusing.
- Let them lead. Ask them what they’ve heard. Encourage them to ask questions about any parts of a tragedy that seem confusing. Within this practice, you are accomplishing two things. First, we are answering the questions that are most important to them. Their curiosity also guides the conversation and allows us to gage how much information is too much and too little. Secondly, it establishes us (not the internet or other kids on the playground at school) as the primary source for all information.
- Help them find purpose and meaning. We can all feel helpless and hopeless when we see suffering in other parts of our country or the world. If a tragedy takes place within our community, our kids are afforded different opportunities to help or offer support. If a tragedy takes place across the globe, we are limited in what we can do. This is an important moment to put the tragedy in a spiritual context. Understand that for young children, it’s an abstract concept to hold up the realities that we serve a God of love and protection and that tragic, awful things are going to happen around us this side of Heaven. Assure them that even as an adult, you can struggle in understanding how those two things are possible and making sense of suffering. Tell them that one of the ways we can work through the feelings of despair, fear and hopelessness are to look for ways to help. We can pray as a family. We can send cards or money to organizations on the ground in those places that we trust. We can do something in our own community that allow us to feel a part of help and healing. Kids (and adults) feel empowered when we can take the helplessness we experience to some kind of action and involvement.
A practical example of this could be looking at your eight year old and saying:
- I noticed you saw tears in my eyes when you walked into the kitchen this morning and I was watching the news. I wanted to explain to you why I feel sad. There is a group of bad men in Israel, a country far, far away from where we live. They launched rockets on villages where many families lived wanting to hurt them. The government is working to help protect the families.
- Have you heard anyone at your school or in our neighborhood talking about Israel and what is happening there right now? Many people may be talking about it because it’s on the news much of the time and our country feels very sad and concerned that this is taking place. We are looking for ways to help the people in Israel, and to stop the bad men from hurting anyone else.
- What are some ways that you think we could help? Asking this question and allowing our kids a chance to answer is an important part of this conversation. This is a context for critical thinking. It’s also a birthplace for empathy, an emotional milestone that is a cornerstone of healthy relationships. Listen for any ideas your children might suggest that allow them to move from helplessness to compassion. If they get stuck, it’s ok to join the brainstorming with suggestions like praying, searching the internet for organizations (foreign or local) providing support and relief.