I am looking for advice on how best to explain to my six-year-old child about all the bad news you hear on the radio or in the newspaper.
During the day I often have the radio on and she has begun to listen in and try to work out what is being said. When the news comes on and there is a serious road traffic accident, or a report of a murder or the conflict in Syria, she will ask me what they are talking about and expect me to explain.
I tend to avoid the question or give her a very watered down summary, as I am worried about frightening her or telling her too much too young about all the bad things that happen in the world. It is worse with the TV news, when there are accompanying images which she is sure to ask about.
Now I find myself turning off the TV and radio when the news comes on and only reading the newspaper when she is in bed (as she peers over my shoulder and asks about the stories).
I know this is not the right approach and I know that I will have to explain bad news to her . . . but how do you explain bad news to a child – such as a child abduction or murder – without worrying them?
Maintaining a young child’s innocence and informing them about the world’s troubles is a delicate balance to get right as a parent. There is a good rationale for protecting children from unnecessary worry and only explaining to them about the harder side of life when they need to know – such as when they experience a loss themselves or when they naturally ask questions.
The world’s media can be dominated by bad news, and frequently they present harrowing details that can scare children and worry them unnecessarily. Though this news is not directed at them, many young children can become aware of it and even actively take an interest in it, so it is important as a parent to think how you are going to deal with this.
There is a virtue in simply reducing your children’s exposure to news, as you are doing, and to make the choice not to watch explicit “bad news” programmes in their presence. Certainly, many adults make these choices themselves and find their own mental health improved when they reduce the amount of such stories they listen to.
Strike a Balance
However, it is important to strike a balance and you don’t want to always avoid difficult issues. Indeed, jumping up to switch off the TV or radio when a bad news story comes on might give them a message that there is something to worry about and increase their anxiety.
Be Part of the Conversation
In addition, children will hear of bad news stories from other sources such as their friends in school, and at some point you do need to think how to explain these to your children. You don’t want to bring them up in an exclusively “Pollyanna world” and it is best that information about the hard side of life comes from you as their parent and not just from their peers or the TV.
Indeed, children often worry most about negative media stories when they hear them in an undigested form and without a parental voice to put them in context.
Every Child will Respond Uniquely
In thinking how to talk to children, remember there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some children are sensitive to bad news in the world and it provokes anxiety in them – for example, if they hear news of a parent dying in a road tragedy, this might immediately make them worry that you might be killed in a similar way. Other children might let such news go over their heads, or distance themselves from it, and not see it as in any way related to them.
Give Factual information and Listen
In talking to your daughter about these stories, it is important to first give her factual information in a way that she can understand, then to make sure to listen to what is behind her question and to address any worries she might have.
For example, if she asks you about what happened in a news story about a fatal road accident, you might say that “this news is a sad story about a man who died when he was hit by a car by accident . . . his family are very upset because they loved him . . . that is why we always take care on the road and make sure to be safe”.
Think your Responses Through in Advance
It can help if you rehearse in your mind what you might say and think of a response to the different questions you imagine your daughter might ask. One of the reasons we find it difficult to discuss bad news stories with our children is because it confronts us with difficult questions about our own beliefs surrounding the harsh realities of life such as human cruelty, tragedy and death itself.
We are challenged to think about what message we want to give our children about these issues and how we hope they might come to terms with them. Some parents might share their personal beliefs with their children at this point, or honestly admit their uncertainties in the face of these realities.
Focus on Coping
Either way, it can help to try to focus on how people cope and on positive meaning in tragedy. For instance, in the example of a fatal road accident you might say to your child: “we are very lucky that this has not happened to us, and these sad events can make you think how lucky you are to have your family who love you”.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.