The first news coverage I remember registering consciously, was that surrounding Gulf War I in 1991 and seemingly simultaneously, something about Ukraine – probably the five-year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I remember, because I thought at the time that Iraq, Iran and Quwait together formed Ukraine. I was five-years-old and didn’t have a clue about tragedies. Maybe I did ask questions, and maybe I was worried, as I often was later on when famine or disease in developing countries was discussed.
I was fifteen when 9/11 took place. I realized by this time that America was far away, so I didn’t feel any sadness or anxiety. Children in America, however, even those not directly impacted, often felt intense sadness and worry. Now a large tragedy didn’t impact my country when I was young – the largest tragedy affecting the Netherlands during my childhood was probably the Bijlmer airplane crash in 1992, which killed 43 people. Children of today, however, have to cope with a tragedy that is almost comparable in size to what 9/11 was for the U.S., ie. the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, which was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur last Thursday when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and flight personnel, including 193 Dutchpeople. Adults, at least those who’ve not lost family or friends, can put this tragedy into perspective, although with 9/11 in mind, even I am worried for its consequences. Children cannot do this. How do you help children cope with a tragedy like the MH17 crash?
I am focusing here on helping children not directly impacted by a tragedy. If a child has lost a family member or friend in a tragic way, they need extra help coping with the loss of a loved one as well as with the trauma of a tragedy like an accident or shooting. You can, however, reassure children who aren’t directly impacted that they are safe. In a book on coping with trauma I own, adult survivors of trauma are taught that the world isn’t safe, but it won’t get any more or less safe by worrying about it. That is not an effective strategy with non-traumatized children. They need to know that you as the parent, teacher or other adult in their life are there to protect them.
Common Sense Media advises keeping the news away from kids under seven. Preschoolers and Kindergartners are not ready to understand the news and will easily confuse fact with fantasy or fear. My parents had the radio on all the time when I was young, so I registered the Chernobyl and Gulf War news, but made really irrational connections. That being said, the Mayo Clinic recommends that parents do talk about tragedies to their kids, since they’ll likely have picked up on the news somehow anyway.
When kids get older, they start to hear about news tragedies or events from their friends. They still may see news as closer to home or more common than it is, particularly if kids are sensitive. Children between seven and twelve may still make logical errors. For example, a child might worry about their family in Amsterdam because flight MH17 took off there.
At elementary school age, you may start to explain the context of news, especially if your child is intellectually and emotionally mature. You might explain that people have different views and that news programs compete for viewers. You can also start to explain the basics of political or religious conflict. At this point, kids have a strong sense of right and wrong, in the sense that it is all-or-nothing. Therefore, you should be careful not to generalize.
When a child becomes a teen, they will likely start finding the news on their own, without your supervision. Discussing the news with them will give you as the parent a good insight into their developing knowledge and maturity. Common Sense Media says that teens will understand that their lives could’ve been impacted by such tragedies as terrorist attacks. Therefore, it is important to discuss their views and reassure them without dismissing their feelings. They may also want to help people directly affected.
Above all, when talking to a child about a tragedy, the Mayo Clinic recommends telling the truth. Explain the basics and don’t go into too much detail. Avoid speculation on what might be the consequences of the tragedy. Listen carefully to your child for misconceptions, misinformation or underlying fears. Reassure them that you are there for them to keep them safe. If your child asks the same question repeatedly, it’s possible that they just need reassurance.