Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

Education, preparation: Why parents must talk to their kids about violence, disaster

Posted August 23
Updated August 24

Terrorism. Mass shootings. School lockdowns. Natural disasters. We don't know what will hit next, but the threat of violence and destruction has put so many on edge these days. We wait for the next flurry of news stories and pray it doesn't come anywhere near us.

No doubt, it's a scary world, especially for the most vulnerable among us - children. But, even if parents protect their kids from the barrage of bad news, kids aren't completely immune to worries about violence, tornadoes and "bad guys."

They practice required lockdown drills at school in case a school shooter breaks in. They prep for catastrophic weather events during severe weather drills. And they are victims of violence - or at least a party to scary situations. Maybe they were at Crabtree Valley Mall when it was evacuated earlier this month. Or, maybe they have family or friends struggling with the flood waters in Louisana.

My kids have always had an age-appropriate awareness of the events in the world. They read a newspaper. We talk about issues in the country and the world. So I was really surprised when one of my tween's teachers mentioned that she was one of the few in her class who could talk knowledgeably about current events.

Parents think they're doing their kids favors by shielding them from bad news, she said, but they're not.

Education, preparedness

Dr. Jack Naftel agrees. Naftel, professor and vice chair for clinical affairs and child and adolescent services at the UNC School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry, tells me that a three-year-old doesn't need to know as much about the latest attack or disaster as a high school student, who is about to enter the real world. But kids need to grow up with an understanding, appropriate for their developmental level, of what's happening around the world.

"Whey would we talk to kids about scary things?" Naftel asked. "We don't want to have kids growing up that have no knowledge of world affairs or what is going on in the world. They need to be educated about a lot of things."

But it's not about just teaching them to understand that bad things exist, Naftel said. We must prepare them in case they are ever a victim so they know what to do.

"We talk about fires and what you do in a fire or we talk bout thunderstorms and seeking shelter if it's a tornado," Naftel said. "We do that in a way that's supportive of the kid and not terrifying to them. We give them a solution to dangerous situations. We help them prepare for these dangerous situations. Those are the primary reasons we need to think about exposure to this."

Helping kids protect themselves

But how much exposure is too much exposure? It depends.

"We really don't want to stress our kids too much with scary things," he said. "We don't want for kids to have to see blood and guts all over the TV screen every day. On the other hand, we want them to be educated about it. You can accomplish the first two goals of education and preparation without a lot of traumatic exposure."

Naftel said it's important to consider your kids' ages, temperaments and emotional stability.

"If you have a very inquisitive child who is six years old and wants to know about fires or terrorism, you can talk with them on their level," he said. "The first thing to do is to try and understand what questions they have and why they are asking those questions."

For young children, the message should be "here is what we do to keep safe." As kids get older, there should be more discussion about how to keep safe and prepare. "Maybe they close the door, lock themselves in, tell everybody what to do," he said.

"For younger kids, you say, 'you’re safe, you’re with your parents. The adults around you are going to protect you,'" Naftel said. "Over time, we help kids protect themselves."

Avoiding traumatic exposure

In many ways, talking about violent events is no different than talking to kids about another tricky topic for some parents - sexuality, Naftel said. The key is gradual exposure to information based on their cognitive level. "We don't have them watch X-rated movies over and over and over again," he said.

They also probably shouldn't watch hours of live television coverage featuring, in the case of the July 14 attack in Nice, France, of a truck plowing through a crowd, killing dozens; watch a crime play out on Facebook Live; or scroll through dozens of gory pictures on Twitter. A newspaper article, with no picture, would be a better option.

"It's the facts," Naftel said of the newspaper article. "That's a much lower exposure than if you're watching people die on the street live during a terrorist attack or watching the Twin Towers fall. There is this gradient of exposure."

Understand your child's 'inner world'

Keep an eye on your kids to see how they're internalizing the news. If parents notice that their children are having trouble separating from them or sleeping, tend to be focused on anxious thoughts or are focused on the events so much that's it's disturbing their normal functioning, then parents need to begin to assess what's going on.

"A good place to start is with your pediatrician," he said. "But a better place to start is ongoing discussions with your child where you understand what's going on in their inner world and you, as a parent, can assess how troubling the anxiety and thoughts are. Do they respond to appropriate reassurances, preparation and education? When you see they are not responding to that and the child is not functioning as well, that's when you begin to walk up the ladder of professional help."

Look for the helpers

Even when talking to our kids about horrible world events, it's still possible to help them feel safe too. I always refer to Fred Rogers' great quote about what is mother taught him.

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,'" Mr. Rogers said. "To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

Naftel agrees.

"Those helpers, really, for most kids, need to be their parents and their teachers because that is who they are exposed too," he said. "What we really are talking about is helping children put it in context and feel that they are in a relatively safe world and have ways to protect themselves from things that are unsafe."

It's important to keep in mind, Naftel said, that the big picture looks pretty good for most of us. We are living longer. Our communities and neighborhoods are generally safe. "We have the luxury in many places in American in living in places that aren't too violent and exposure to really violent events is going to be rare," he said.

The goal here, Naftel said, is instruction and readiness. After all, don't all parents want their kids to become adults who can handle themselves in any situation?

Said Naftel: "We want educated and prepared children who are not emotionally upset by over exposure to negative things that happen in the world."


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