Some things seem too hard to talk about with our children. Even normal things like the death of someone close, or the illness of a parent. But these days, surrounded by ever-present media presenting stories and pictures of unimaginable events here and around the world, as parents we have even greater concern about how we can protect our young children from the effects of what they see and hear.
Just this past week the newspapers and internet have been flooded with pictures of a five-year-old boy rescued from a bombed building in Syria. Covered with mud and blood, he is disheveled and appears to be in shock. The sense of shock about the plight of so many was aroused by the picture of this child. A current political ad shows a group of wide-eyed children mesmerized by a TV screen with the warning, “the children are watching.”
Although the ad was directed at words spoken in the service of the election campaign, the warning could easily apply to much of the news coverage these days. How do we talk to our children about these things? While young children don’t have our memories of upsetting events in the past, our impulse is to protect our children from upset or worry, and to minimize an event as a way of denying its impact on a child.
Children are much more aware of what is going on around them than we think they are or would like them to be. Yet sometimes our own emotions get in the way of recognizing or understanding what our children are thinking and feeling. The story and picture of the young child who was rescued, as with any story about children, is apt to bring an identification with this child by other children. Children think – or worry – about whether this could happen to them.
As parents, we also worry about whether this could happen to them and we would like to reassure them – as well as ourselves – that it won’t. Unhappily, we can’t offer such blanket reassurances about the things that have been happening around us, that is part of what makes the conversation so hard. But we can reassure them that we will always try to protect them.
The way we talk to a child about disturbing events depends a great deal on the age and developmental stage of the child. The best way to know what is on a child’s mind and how to respond to him, is to listen to his questions and what he says. In that way, you can correct any distortions in his understanding and offer a simple story about what is known. The story needs to match the child’s age and level of development but can be straightforward and real without going into gory details.
Children react to events in different ways, which may be different than we imagined and may even seem uncaring to an adult. The child in the picture was wearing a tee shirt with a picture of a cartoon character, much noted in the stories about him. A young child might be more concerned about what happened to the shirt than to the boy. While this might be a way of avoiding what is too frightening, more likely it would be a child’s characteristic concern with concrete facts and a more literal recounting of events.
Children already know that there are bad guys in this world. In fact, they may be more in touch with “bad guys” than we are as adults because they are still struggling with what feels like the “bad guys” within themselves. So the greatest reassurance we can offer as parents is the fact that we are there for them and ready to help them with whatever struggles they are experiencing.
We can’t protect children from life’s painful events and experiences. We can listen and respond to their concerns and in that way help them develop the mental and emotional muscles they need to confront whatever life holds.