Talking to children about the news

My heart has been aching a lot lately. News of MH17 really shook my core. And then there is Gaza. And all those children. I feel somewhat guilty being on summer holiday with the children in the midst of beautiful surroundings while there is so much horror going on in the world right now. But I am not here to talk about my sadness but rather my son’s — and what I have learned because of it. Let’s talk. About talking to children about the news.

Talking to children about the news

“What happened, mum?”

As we were walking to the café today, photos of the fallen passenger plane were plastered on the papers in the local presse and displayed along the pavement en route to the café. My eldest, a 7-year old boy, has always been an ‘old soul’ and startlingly perceptive. He immediately saw the pictures (which I couldn’t shield him from) and asked me, “What happened to the plane, Mummy?”

How to respond?

“What happened to the plane?” I was caught by surprise and didn’t have my usual Mummy-ready answers. I struggled to weave a story in my head but, the truth is, I was just too sad. And so I told him, quite plainly, “a missile shot it down, sweetie.” And then, of course, all the why’s ensued.

Talking to your school child about war and violence is such an enormous task. It brings into your child’s consciousness the existence of evil in this world which, heretofore, came in the form of a black-caped figure with a gas mask for a head calling itself Darth Vader. As much as it shakes your being, so does it shake his, because along with the knowledge comes a sense of insecurity and vulnerability that this badness can happen to me and my family too.

At what age can children understand the news?

Experts agree: it is wise to limit exposure of young children under the age of 8 to violence on video, whether it be news on TV or movies on YouTube. But chances are, your child may hear about stories of war, violence or even natural disasters anyway from friends or word of mouth–and they will want to talk about it. In fact, research shows that children, especially those between the ages of 8 and 12, want their parents to talk with them about today’s toughest issues, including violence. So when your child comes bearing questions, it is important for us to listen and respond in a sensitive manner. Not just shrug it off by invoking the words of Boy George and dismissively say: “War is stupid and that’s it.”

Discuss news with your child

I did some desk research and have a few references to share should you ever be faced with an inquisitive child like mine. Because sometimes, children may not show it but the news can frighten them. As I read, in such cases, it is all the more important to discuss with your child because, “no matter how frightening some feelings are, it is far more frightening to think that no one is willing to talk about them. If we communicate by our silence that this—or any other subject—is too scary or upsetting to talk about, then the children, who depend on us, may experience the added fear that we are not able to take care of them. Young children especially need to feel secure in the knowledge that the adults in their lives can manage difficult topics and deep feelings and are available to help them do the same.”

I would one day like to wake up to a world without heartbreaking news to greet me in the morning. But this is our world today and our children are, sadly, a part of it. Hopefully, by having these conversations and guiding them through these realities, they will grow up making sure there will be more of the good and less of the sad.

Some helpful references:

When the world is on fire: Talking to your little one about a crisis

“Talking with Children about War and Violence in the World”

“Talking to Your Kids About Natural Disasters, War, and Violence”

“Talking with Kids about Tough Issues” 

Written by Marite Irvine

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