When the news is scary, how do I talk to my kids?

As a child psychologist and mother, I still struggle with the right words to share with my child – and I’m struggling especially hard this week.
How much do I share about the violence and chaos in Ferguson, as well as attempt to explain the “why” behind it? How do I explain the distrust and anger many feel toward police officers, figures I was raised to believe keep us safe?
As parents, we need to recognize what our own core values are with regard to safety and authority, and communicate those values to our kids – preferably during times of calm, not emotional upheaval.
And when times are scary, you can use some of the following tips to communicate with your children:

  1. Try to be in charge of what and how your child learns about the event.  In general, it is a good idea to limit children’s exposure to traumatic news stories and images.  While adults may desire to stay informed, it is best to turn off the television when children are present.  Inquire about how teachers are handling the news with students so you can monitor their exposure at school.
  2. When exposure is unavoidable, provide basic information about what happened at an age appropriate level.  Brief, basic facts are typically appropriate for younger children, while older children and teens may have more questions.  Don’t overwhelm young children with too much information, but be sure to address questions as they arise. My colleague Dr. Kelly Ross has some practical advice to help parents share news about death.
  3. Do not assume that the child’s worries and questions are the same as your own.  Each child will understand and react differently.  This will vary to some extent with age or developmental level, personality and pre-existing anxiety, and the manner in which the information is presented.
  4. Use open-ended statements and questions such as “Tell me what you know” and “What questions do you have?” rather than “Do you understand what happened?” and “Do you have any questions?”  This will help you get a better sense of the child’s understanding, worries and desire for more information.
  5. Acknowledge the events in a calm way and provide reassurance about the child’s own safety and security.  Be honest – don’t tell children something “could never happen” here, or to them – but minimize anxiety by talking about the relative likelihood and the isolated nature of this particular event.  Focus on their parents’ and caregivers’ ability and efforts to keep them safe from harm.
  6. Keep your own emotions in check.  Exposure to scary news is upsetting and overwhelming for adults.  It is natural to be emotional at times.  However, children look to their parents and other significant adults for a sense of whether or not things are “o.k.”  Parents often serve as a child’s “barometer” regarding their own safety and security.  It is important for parents to manage their own stress level and to have other adults to talk to about the news.

As I watch the footage of rioting and looting in Ferguson, perhaps a final note of advice I can give is to remember when you’re angry and scared, the part of the brain responsible for thinking and judgment is not working well.  When upset, people often just react and this can make a bad situation worse.  Being a part of a group can create a lot of good feelings – -participating in a peace rally or cheering on the Cardinals, for example. But in times of stress and confusion, mob behavior can cause people do to things they wouldn’t normally do. Walk away from the chaos until you can clear your head and make safe choices.

If you feel like your child is struggling particularly hard, you can call 314.454.8336 for advice, or 314.454.5437 to schedule an appointment.

Kim Sirl, PhD About Kim Sirl, PhD

Kim Sirl, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with the Department of Psychology at St. Louis Children’s Hospital who specializes in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of children ages 4-12 years. She works closely with many community pediatricians and the Movement Disorders Clinic at Washington University School of Medicine. Outside of work, Dr. Sirl and her husband enjoy parenting their pre-school-aged, locally adopted daughter.

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