Avoiding the topic or being dishonest when kids ask questions about traumatic news or events can do more harm than good.
Natural disasters. Mass shootings. Raging wildfires. Accidents and suicides. The world can be a scary place and bad news can often feel overwhelming for many people.
So, when something is difficult to process for adults, how can we expect children to handle bad news?
“With scary world news, it makes sense to limit a child’s exposure as much as possible,” said Stephanie Marcy, PhD, a Children’s Hospital Los Angeles psychologist and clinical associate professor.
She advises adults to be mindful of what they discuss in front of young children, and the news they consume in spaces where kids can overhear — such as the TV in their living room.
But what about news that hits closer to home, like an accident involving someone a child knows, a fatal illness diagnosis of a loved one, or a traumatic event they’ve experienced themselves?
How do you discuss these topics with children in a helpful way?
While Marcy suggests limiting a child’s exposure to frightening world news is often best, the “same avoidance” isn’t healthy when it’s “something a child has actually experienced.”
Instead, she recommends a tailored approach based on each child’s age.
“Everything always has to be geared towards the developmental level of the child,” Marcy said. “What’s good for a 4-year-old might not be developmentally appropriate for the 10-year-old.”
Marcy also suggests when parents or protective caregivers discuss difficult subjects with young children, it may be better to have “whomever the child feels closest to and trusts” take the lead.
“That has to be the person willing to navigate these things with the child, giving them the appropriate information and the appropriate space to process,” she said.
To help children better process potentially upsetting news or traumatic events, Marcy suggests parents and caregivers consider the following steps:
- Ask your child questions about what they saw, what they’re feeling, and what they may be worried about.
- Keep it open-ended and allow your child to guide the conversation from there.
- Keep the door open so kids can engage in discussing these issues as questions come up.
- Expose them to the right number of visuals and information for their age, as you see fit.
- Stick to normalcy. Keep up your routine and embrace the things that your child finds comforting and predictable.
But what if parents are struggling to process their emotions about upsetting news or a traumatic event themselves?
“That’s OK. The goal is that — even if you are upset, crying or nervous — you’re still communicating to your child that you’re approachable. And you’re showing him or her how you find your own calm,” said Marcy. “The idea is to provide reassurance to the child. There’s always something you can reassure them about.”
She says the biggest problems arise when parents and protective caretakers don’t feel up to the task.
“We don’t want to talk about these things because they make us nervous or anxious,” Marcy explained. “That’s natural, and in the short term, it may even be protective and adaptive. But in the long-term, it can be a barrier to mental health for both the child and the adult.”
Katie Rusk, a mom in West Virginia, tells Healthline how Marcy’s suggestion of honesty worked for her family after her 4-year-old daughter experienced an injury that led to permanent loss of sight.
“We had to rush her to the ER, transfer her to a children’s hospital and she had to undergo multiple surgeries. The most important thing we’ve done as parents through that is be honest,” she said. “Our kids ask questions and we answer honestly. We are gentle, but we try not to sugarcoat reality.”
Megan Pangburn Polselli, a second-grade teacher in Arizona, says she took a similar approach with her students after one of their classmates died in a plane crash with his siblings and father.
“I had to tell my class of twenty-five students what happened,” she said. “I read a book with them called “The Invisible String,” and we discussed how even though we couldn’t see him anymore, he was still in our hearts. It was a great book to read without getting into anyone’s religious beliefs.”
Child life specialist Danielle Marie Tumolo of Children’s Hospital of Nevada at University Medical Center in Las Vegas, echoes Marcy’s advice that honesty is the best policy with kids after a traumatic situation.
“Kids are incredibly smart, perceptive, and resourceful. If they want information, they will find it, and lying to them can damage the bond you have. So, sit them down and explain in an honest, but not terrifying manner what happened,” she said. “Reach out to your local children’s hospital and ask for some tips from their child life specialist if you aren’t sure what to say or how to phrase it.”
In some cases, honestly talking with a child won’t be enough to help them process upsetting news or a traumatic event.
Marcy advises parents to watch for symptoms that could indicate a need to seek outside help. They include:
- sleep difficulties
- significant changes in behavior
- inappropriate guilt or self-blame
Marcy also points out that the amount of time that’s passed after the upsetting event is important to note as well.
“One to two weeks after the scary thing happens, hang in there and just continue to answer their questions,” she said. “But if you’re noticing symptoms of PTSD a month or more beyond the event, it may be time to pay a visit to your child’s pediatrician.”
For families who may be struggling financially, or who don’t have insurance that will help address their child’s mental health needs, there are other options available.
“Look for resources online. There may be groups you can find, even some that may meet locally, for very low or no cost. You can also check with local community mental health centers, as many have a sliding scale. And look at pediatric divisions in hospitals where you may have a better chance of successfully navigating billing,” Marcy said.
She also notes parents can reach out to their child’s school. With a 504 plan (a blueprint that outlines how a school will provide support for children who have unique challenges), there may be things they can put into place to help a traumatized child adjust. And if there is a school psychologist on staff, they may be willing to provide some counseling there as well.
Also, don’t forget to take care of yourself. If your child is struggling with a scary event that occurred close to home, it’s likely you’ve been touched by the same event. Seeking out therapy, relying on your support system, and finding ways to process your own emotions may be key to helping your child process theirs.