Not long ago, as my kids and I were arriving at my son’s basketball practice, an airplane flew over us. This one was quite a bit louder and faster than your average over-the-city airliner, so my daughter looked up to see what all the noise was about.
“Are they coming to bomb us, Daddy?” she asked, moving closer to me.
I told her no, but her question surprised me, so I asked her why she thought that. My daughter told me she’d heard something at school — a news story about an airport and bombs and people getting killed. We talked a bit about the story she’d heard, about how awful things do sometimes happen, then I reassured her that the aircraft roaring above wasn’t going to harm us.
In today’s media-saturated culture, families are surrounded by accounts of shootings, bombings and other mass killings. Our kids won’t fully understand these stories, but they’ll be frightened just the same. As parents, we need to help them have the necessary facts to process these tragic events and a larger understanding to ease their fears. Here are a few principles to help you talk with your children about man-made tragedies:
Nurture their trust in you
As parents, we want our children to verbalize their fears and concerns to us. My son is 13, and I value those moments when he comes to me, letting me know he’s worried about or afraid of something. I know the day of his independence is coming — when we’ll not have as many of these conversations. It is through these exchanges that I prepare him for that future. I encourage his trust by actively listening and not downplaying his fears. I avoid criticizing flawed logic, even as I work to correct it. Kids may not be able to articulate what they are scared of, but those emotions are real.
Try to see things from your child’s perspective. Whatever media they are exposed to, ask yourself how they might interpret what they’ve seen and heard. When my daughter was 5 or 6, she was accidentally exposed to a few moments of a disturbing news report. That night at bedtime, she was reminded of those pictures.
“Can I have a light on tonight?” she asked, looking around the room nervously. I did turn on a nightlight, but then I knelt down and looked around the room from her angle. We explored these familiar surroundings together, helping her see again that her room and closet were safe. Some stuffed animals were casting odd shadows, so we relocated them. I knew there was nothing in the room that could harm her, but it was important for my daughter to have a small sense of control over that environment and know that she could voice her fears to her father.
Tell the truth — in appropriate doses
As parents, most of us would probably prefer to protect our kids from ever having to wrestle with the idea of mass violence. This type of protection is more possible for younger kids up to age 4. Preschoolers aren’t able to process these sorts of events, and we can usually limit the flow of media that these young ones are exposed to. But as kids start into the school years — as they’re able to understand the big words in a top-of-the-hour news report or headline on the computer screen — they’re going to be asking questions. Answer their questions with the truth — sad as it may be — providing your children with the basic facts about what happened.
Most kids ages 4 to 7 won’t be looking for a lengthy conversation. You shouldn’t go into too many details. A simple, straightforward explanation is usually best: “A man who was very angry hurt a lot of people at an airport. Some of those people died.”
A child’s world is generally pretty small, and kids may think that the horrible news events they’ve heard about are just across town or right next door. They might ask if it’s safe to go to a mall, if ISIS is in your city, or as in the case with my daughter, if the aircraft buzzing overhead is going to attack. Depending on the tragedy, kids may also believe a number of inaccuracies that are fueled by rumors at school or from conversations with friends. So correct whatever exaggerations or inaccuracies they may have heard. One of the first things I talk about with my kids is simple geographic distance. We look at a map or globe and talk about where the tragedy occurred and how far away it is from our home.
Tell the truth, but don’t dwell on information and imagery that will deepen fears. Your goal as a parent is to help your kids feel safe and grounded and learn how to handle stress. Children are comforted by the stability and safety their parents provide, knowing that even if bad things happen, the family will get through it together. This creates what scientists call “tolerable stress.”
With kids 8 to 12, you can follow these same guidelines and start to broaden the conversation with a few more details and insights. And when children enter the teen years, you can look deeper into these issues, wrestling with the meaning and faith implications behind the events.
Adjust to their personality
When considering how much to share with your children, maturity level and temperament are more important than age. As a parent, you know your children and what they can handle. Weigh this knowledge against the need to give them enough information to understand and process these stories. You may find that you’re having weightier conversations with a 9-year-old than you are with an 11-year-old.
Some children have a personality that seems more curious and news-ready. These uninhibited children are just not all that fearful. When they go hiking, these kids want to tiptoe right up to the edge of every drop-off. And when hearing about tragedies in the world, they’ll not shy away from the gritty details of a story.
They often seek to learn and understand everything they can about a news event. With these kids, we should try to guide our conversation to help them understand that real people were hurt, that real people are still hurting. You’ll also want them to consider the spiritual side of these tragedies, in order to move them toward empathy. Invite them to pray with you for the victims and even the perpetrators.
Other children, the inhibited types, tend to be more afraid. With these kids, you’ll want to work on the trait of courage. Let them know it’s not bad to be fearful. These emotions are normal. The brain is trying to think through what happened. But those emotions shouldn’t keep us from living our lives. God intends for us to continue doing the things we normally do.
Be aware of the emotions you’re modeling for your kids. Many children, particularly younger ones, pick up on our actions and outward displays of emotion. This has a strong influence on how they will think and feel about something. Are you making comments — perhaps about not leaving the house or trying to avoid crowds — that will mold their thinking and their fears? Adults are allowed to be scared, of course, but it’s often better to talk about these things with a spouse behind closed doors. In our home, my wife and I do discuss tragic news events with our children, but we often save the raw emotions and details about these stories for when the kids are in bed for the night.
Show them the bigger story
Remind your children of how seldom these tragedies occur. I recently asked my daughter to consider what a television news report would look like if it covered all the times an airplane landed without incident and all the times people safely attended movies and concerts and carnivals.
“It would go on for a really long time,” she responded.
“And no one would think it was very exciting,” I said. “So instead, they focus on rare, awful events. Those tragedies get highlighted so much that it’s easy to think that terrible news is the only kind of news there is.”
It’s important that we help our kids not dwell on the negative. God’s goodness and truth are alive during even the darkest times.
As you process these events together, remind your children that the true story is bigger than the bloodshed. Point your kids toward all the good that is happening. Look for the men and women who are risking their lives to save others. Look for those who drive ambulances or direct traffic toward safety. Those who bring bandages and blankets, those who donate blood, those who hand out sandwiches and water bottles. Look for those who are involved in the lives of victims, giving them comfort and helping them heal.
And of course, as Christians, we know that the story is even bigger. Jesus is the ultimate helper. His response to the sin and evil of our world is to come down to our level and take the punishment for all of it. Sin creates chaos and pain. God rescues our fallen race from that misery. Isaiah 26:3-4 says God will give peace to a person who wholeheartedly trusts in Him and keeps his mind focused on Him. He does not leave us as orphans. He comes to strengthen, comfort and help.
Daniel Huerta is the vice president of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family.