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

Keep misinformation to a minimum — ask your child what he knows and answer his questions sensitively.

By Toby Leah Bochan
Source: Scholastic Parents

ven if your child doesn’t sit down and watch news programs or read the newspaper, chances are that he knows and hears about major events, and even some minor ones, just from commercials for the news and word of mouth. Overheard conversations and rumors at school can lead to exaggerated and inaccurate ideas about what’s going on in the world. And natural disasters can spark an excessive fear for family safety. Listen for comments or questions about what’s going on and begin the conversation there. If your child doesn’t bring up the topic, the best way to find out what your child knows is simply to ask. A simple, “Did you hear about X?” or “Do you know what’s going on with Y?” is a perfect way to spark a conversation. Child development expert Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., advises parents “to really listen and tailor discussions to each child, and consider not only the child’s age, but also how sensitive or easily scared he is.”

Younger children (under age 8) have trouble distinguishing make-believe from reality, especially since they see both on TV. Either way, some images can be frightening and seem extremely close to home; it is a wise idea to limit a younger child’s exposure to violence on TV in general. If your child seems afraid, acknowledge her very real fears and reassure her that she and the rest of the family are safe. Explain that tragedies like natural disasters or school violence are rare events and that there is very little chance that your hometown will become a battleground. Answer questions honestly, calmly, and clearly, but don’t go into unnecessary detail.

It’s also a good idea to talk about your own feelings about disasters and violence with your child so she knows that mommies and daddies also get scared or sad or angry. Kids may be embarrassed by their feelings, and it can help a shy or reticent child to talk if she understands that emotions are nothing to be ashamed of. But it is also important, reminds Dr. Brodkin, to keep your emotions under control and remain calm even while discussing strong feelings, so children feel safe and secure.

For older children (grades 3-8), use the following tips to help guide you:

1. Watch the news with your child
2. Find the answers together and explore more
3. Keep up with the news at school
4. Keep an open ear and mind

1. Watch the News with Your Child
The easiest way to know and monitor what your child is exposed to is to sit down together and watch the news. Find a program that isn’t overly sensational (try local news and weekend shows) and talk about what you see. It doesn’t have to be a formal talk about the issues — in fact, that will probably bore your child. Instead, just let him comment on the images and stories as they appear. Discussing the news together will also allow you to gauge his reactions and decide whether he seems overwhelmed or if he’s okay and wants to learn more. If the graphic visual nature of television news upsets him, switch to reading the newspaper together. It’s also a great way to build reading skills and can be done anywhere, anytime.

Keep a globe or atlas on hand while watching the news. You’ll be able to locate areas that are discussed and point out how far they are from home, what else is nearby, and find basic facts like population and the country’s capital.

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2. Find the Answers Together and Explore More
Your child may have questions you don’t know the answer to. Instead of making something up or simply saying you don’t know, tell her, “That’s an interesting question. Let’s find the answer together.” Then, when the show is over, open the encyclopedia or search the Internet to explore and research the answer. While you’re investigating, give your opinions, but don’t state them as absolutes, so your child feels comfortable expressing her own feelings, even if they seem to contradict yours.

Encourage your child to find out more on her own with kids news sources like Scholastic News, which are written specifically for an upper elementary and middle school audience.

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3. Keep Up With the News at School
Your child’s teacher may require the class to follow current events as part of the curriculum, or talk of the news may just be interwoven with peer gossip. Ask him or his teacher about what is being discussed at school. Invite your child to tell you what schoolmates think and feel about current events. Use the microcosm of school to explain the world at large.

Take advantage of the opportunity to use news of natural disasters, war, and violence as a springboard into larger topics like the environment, tolerance, and non-violent options for resolving conflicts.

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4. Keep an Open Ear and Mind
Be open to listening and answering your child’s concerns at all times. You may not be able to engage her in discussion or she may not want to watch the news with you, but she may ask a question about the news while you’re doing your shopping or are just driving around; a kid’s mind doesn’t always make the most linear connections. Inquire why she is worried and if it isn’t a convenient time to talk, tell her that you want to talk more about it later. Set a time so you make sure you remember and your child understands that it’s important to you to talk with her. Also respect her wishes if she doesn’t want to talk at a certain time and let her know she can revisit the discussion later.

Be ready to discuss any topic again, and often. These are big issues, and just as violence isn’t going to disappear from the world, one conversation isn’t going to answer all of your child’s ever-changing questions and concerns.

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Further Reading:

The American Academy of Pediatrics: Children, Terrorism, & Disasters

The American Red Cross: Developing a Family Communication Plan

Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters, from The National Institute of Mental Health

Talking with Children About War and Violence in the World, from Educators for Social Responsibility



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