When Children Hear Horror Stories on the News
A primary reason for family time is to build a sense of confidence in children about their family's stability and safety. This becomes very important when young children are exposed to disturbing monstrosities they may hear about in the news or at school. At such times, parents must take special care to help their children trust that family togetherness is something they can count on forever.
Whether it's an overheard sound bite from TV or gossip at school, children often catch wind of news events before they are developmentally and emotionally ready to understand them. Media this day and age leaves little room for escape.
The painful truth is that a child's confidence in family togetherness can be shaken in the blink of an eye when he or she hears about a parent abandoning or ending the life of his or her own child. While parents may hope their child didn't really understand or take what they heard seriously, more often than not they do hear, but are too confused or afraid to ask about it. When children do ask about such stories, parents are faced with questions that cannot – and should not – go unanswered.
As a general rule, children are best helped by honesty, in measured ways that are appropriate for their age and emotional development. Unaddressed questions and worries do not go away simply because they are not talked about. In fact, when not discussed, these questions have the potential to become even more worrisome in a child's mind.
Create a Safe World for Children
Very young children benefit from the comfort of the idea that the world is a generally safe place and that their parents provide them with a magical protection from dangers that do exist. For this reason, a parent's first job is to proactively prevent their young children from seeing or hearing disturbing news. If a child does hear something, parents should ask their child if he or she heard something that was confusing – even if a question is not forthcoming – and offer a simple explanation.
In the case of a story that involves extreme harm to a child or children, explaining that the parent who committed the act had a sickness, and that such a thing would never happen in the child's own family, is necessary. If a child pushes the topic, offer additional reassurance that if someone in the family did become sick in that way, the family would seek help and take that person to a doctor.
Older children should hear the same type of explanation from their parents, but should also be encouraged to express their own thoughts. For this age group, one discussion is usually not enough to work out worries and concerns, but children are often reluctant to initiate conversations about such uncomfortable topics. Parents can remind their child of the conversation from time to time and ask if he or she has anything more to discuss.
Children derive their sense of safety from reading their parents. When horrible things happen, parents should convey, in a genuine way, that they find this very sad, but at the same time project a calm and confident air that their family is healthy and strong. By being supportive and honest with children in this way, parents become an important and valuable resource when their children need stability and security most.
- Learn more about how you can help your child comprehend difficult news at lucydanielscenter.org/page/coping-with-catastrophes.
- See also this 2011 article on Helping Kids Cope when Disaster Strikes.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.