The news is horrifying enough for adults to process—so what do you say to your children?

August 14, 2017
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The images of terror, violence, and hate that filled our TV screens and news feeds this past weekend from Charlottesville, Virginia, were difficult enough for adults to process; for parents, it elicited all our worst fears. How do we tell our children they live in an imperfect, sometimes frightening world, while still protecting their innocence and sense of safety? Do we have to say anything at all?

“I was horrified to learn of what happened in Charlottesville this weekend, particularly since I grew up in Northern Virginia and have many family connections there,” says mom of two Annette Poblete. “My daughters, who are 11 and 14, had just gotten back from camp and I felt so sad that I had to tell them about it, but I did, because I feel it’s important that they understand what happened.”

“The instinct to want to protect your kids from bad news is very understandable and it comes from a compassionate, protective place,” says Dana Dorfman, PhD, a family and child therapist in New York. And the truth is, depending on your child’s age, you can keep that bubble intact for the time being.

If your child is under age 7 and is unlikely to hear about the news at school or from older siblings, then it’s fine to not bring it up at all, says Dorfman—with one caveat. You have to make sure you, Grandma, the babysitter, or whoever is spending time with your child is not discussing it or watching the news in front of your child. “One good thing about tech-savvy kids is that they are usually just streaming their own kid-friendly content, rather than channel-surfing the TV, where they might find disturbing images,” Dorfman says.

But once your child is old enough to hear about Charlottesville or any other disturbing news from an outside source, whether that’s older kids on the school bus, Instagram, or the news, you should bring up the issue so you can make sure he or she is getting the correct info, presented in an age-appropriate way, says Dorfman. Here are some tips:

Process the News on Your Own First.

“Before you talk to your child, clarify where you stand, and what information and values you want to impart to him,” says Dorfman. Thinking it through—even if you turn off the TV and simply go to a quite room for a few minutes before discussing—will help you edit down exactly what you need to share, which is hard to do in the heat of the moment.

Ask and Encourage Questions.

Ask your child if she has heard anything about the incident first, to see what she already knows. Correct any misinformation and ask her if she has any questions. If she’s completely in the dark, keep it as simple as possible. “Too many details can be overwhelming,” says Dorfman. “Tell them if they have any questions they can always come back to you. This should be one of many ongoing conversations.”

Remind Kids That They Are Safe.

For younger children, their number one concern will be, Can this happen to our family? “It’s okay for parents to over-promise safety, even if you are feeling unsure about it yourself,” says Dorfman. You can point out all the people in your community who are there to help you, and tell your child that you will do everything as a family to stay safe together. “I tell my son James that people are good, but sometimes things happen to them that make them do screwy things,” says Michelle Thompson, a mom of one in New York. “I will point out to him that in Charlottesville, many of the people standing up for what is right were white—including the young woman who was killed—and they put their lives on the lines to protect people of color like us. We have so many allies who are working to keep us safe.”

Use It as a Jumping-off Point for Further Discussions.

Tweens and teens may feel angry, confused, and want to express their opinions. “You can steer the conversation in a productive direction, like asking them what they would do if they strongly disagreed with someone in their class. Can they come up with a better way to work out our disagreements than violence?” says Dorfman. She also points out that some kids may have to think about it quietly for a while and some may just go back to reading Harry Potter or playing on their tablet.  Each kid has their own way of dealing with it, so you just need to tune in to your own child and let them take the lead.

Put Something Positive Out in the World.

The best way to overcome that feeling of anger or powerlessness is to find a way to make a difference in the world or your own small community, says Dorfman. Encourage your child to take action by writing a letter to their congressperson or the president, starting a club at school to encourage acts of kindness, attending a peaceful protest as a family, or baking treats and bringing them to a neighbor who might be feeling discouraged by the events. “I also remind my son that things like this have happened before in our country, and good people have come out to change things, and we will do our best as a family to thrive,” says Thompson.

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