Regular Birmingham Parent Columnist & Guest Blogger
Q. With all the frightening news reported through the media, can you guide me on how and how much to tell my children?
A. The age of the child is going to be the key to what should be shared. A three year old doesn’t need to know anything. He will not hear about the tragedy from other sources. A six year old, who attends school, will hear it from peers and adults at school, and so you will want him to know it from you. A teen can legitimately be exposed to bad news because he is able to process information and understand facts and feelings. He no longer gains all his information from the family and will know whether you tell him or others do.
Preschoolers have “magical thinking.” If two events occur together, they may assume that one caused the other. For example, if their block tower falls when there is thunder outside, the preschool age child might assume that the thunder knocked his blocks down.
It is this magical thinking that can cause mis-perception and fears. Parents of children younger than 6 should be careful to check what the child has heard and to correct any misconceptions that might lead to irrational fears later on.
Young children need a protected childhood. Just as most sexual matters are not suitable for discussion in childhood, so is violence. Shield your young children from life’s horrific events and give them back innocence. Don’t feel compelled to discuss the news with him. If possible, shield him from your tears. It is scary for the young child to see a parent cry. If he sees you cry, be sure he sees your recovery, as well.
Elementary school age children have concrete thinking. They need to be told the facts simply and directly without including too many “possibly” and “could haves”. The concretely thinking early elementary school age child will think that the man who shot the children was “more bad” for shooting 20 children than if he had shot only one. It’s the number that determines the badness- not the action he took.
Again, simplicity is the best way to tell a child, followed by asking him to repeat what he has understood. By asking him to tell you, you can avoid misunderstanding. Respond concretely, assuring him that you can protect him, even if this is not absolutely true. Children need absolute faith in the power of their parents to keep them safe. While I never advocate lying to a child, this is not the time to burden him with the limits of your power. You might want to read stories together in which the mama bear or papa tiger protects his cub. Make your child feel safe. Tell him his home and his school are safe places. Don’t forget that Sandy Hook was one event out of millions of school days and has never happened on that scale before.
Children older than 11 or 12 have abstract thought. They can understand causality and ambivalence. They can consider more than one set of facts at a time. For example, they can see that a child who breaks a whole stack of plates while helping a parent get ready for a party is less guilty than a child who breaks only one plate while getting a cookie he was not supposed to have. He can grasp that the motive- not just number of plates broken - determine the seriousness of the misdeed.
The family of a teenager should discuss the news and use it as an opportunity to talk about morals, anger management and topics like bullying. This is a teaching moment, as well as a time to share feelings and sadness with your teens. Sharing feeling about the tragedy can bring a family together. Sharing reactions to the tragedy can teach values.
Vivian K. Fridman Ph.D. is a child and family pschologist at UAB, Department of Psychiatry. She is a regular columnist at Birmingham Parent.