Sometimes our children are frightened. Maybe of imaginary things like monsters under their bed. Or maybe of things that are all-too-real that they overhear on the news, like natural disasters and school shootings. Sometimes there is something we need to talk to a child about, like “stranger danger” (aka “tricky people“), or what to do in case of an earthquake, and we worry that talking about it will make them frightened that this thing could happen to them at any time.
Should parents and teachers avoid talking about scary topics? Or should we figure out a way to address them that could reduce the child’s fear?
I recommend that we talk about these things. Here are basic guidelines:
- Be thoughtful about what topics you bring up.
- If they bring it up, don’t avoid the topic or keep changing the subject. Talk about it.
- If they’ve asked a question, clarify exactly what they’re asking, and check what they already know about the topic.
- Talk about how likely (or unlikely) this thing is to happen.
- Tell them what we do to prevent it or prevent it from being a big problem.
- Explain to them how they would know this thing was happening.
- Teach what they could do if it happened, in order to make things better.
- Talk about what the grown-ups around them would do to make it better.
- Reassure them that even if bad things happens to people, people are tough and resilient, and pull together and make it through.
In terms of how much focus to put on each area: touch only briefly, but honestly, on what the bad thing is that might happen. Focus most of your time and attention on prevention, response, and recovery.
Be thoughtful about what topics you bring up
I am definitely not proposing that we talk to them every day about scary things! Nor am I saying to talk to them about every scary thing that could happen! There are two very limited circumstances that would lead me to talk about these topics:
- When my child asks me about something that scares them. (i.e. they initiate the conversation because they are worried.)
- When I need to educate my child(ren) to help them to stay safe (e.g. fire drills, earthquake drills, teaching what they would do if they got lost in a crowd). I do these things only sporadically, just often enough that my child will remember the skills, not so often that they become source of on-going anxiety.
When you should not talk to your child about something scary: When you’re still processing it yourself, and you need emotional support to cope with it. If you need that support, get it. But don’t ask your child to provide it. That’s not their role.
If you are upset and your child notices, let them know you’re upset about something that is happening far away, and reassure them that they’re OK and you’re not upset at them.
As parents, sometimes we become obsessed with something in the news, and watch it over and over on the TV, or talk about it over and over in our children’s hearing. This can be really worrisome for children. Here’s a couple things to remember about exposing your child to the news:
The way that news is presented on television can be quite confusing for a young child. The same video segment may be shown over and over again through the day, as if each showing was a different event. Someone who has died turns up alive and then dies again and again. Children often become very anxious since they don’t understand much about videotape replays, closeups, and camera angles. Any televised danger seems close to home to them because the tragic scenes are taking place on the TV set in their own living room. Children can’t tell the difference between what’s close and what’s far away, what’s real and what’s pretend, or what’s new and what’s re-run. [From Mr. Rogers]
Preschool age kids have a limited ability to discern the fantasy of an entertainment show from the reality of news…. kids in this age range are as likely to be afraid of what they see on the news as they are of dragons, or other fictional worries. …
Psychologically, kids between the ages of six and ten are most vulnerable to… the news. They know the difference between fantasy and reality, but they lack perspective. Instead of worrying about monsters under the bed, they tend to worry about real dangers like kidnapping, car wrecks and tornadoes. … Remember that children will not understand the frequency with which events occur. If they hear about break-ins, injury, and murder in their area (even if the area is a large one that contains millions of people), the fact that the event was important enough to be covered will lead them to believe that these are very common events. Help children develop a realistic sense of danger and limit their exposure to gruesome reviews of crime and injury. [Source – includes tips on handling the news with your kids]
Don’t avoid the topic
When a child brings it up, don’t avoid the subject. Sometimes kids bring a topic up because they are curious and want to know more. Let them know it’s OK to talk about it, and that you’re glad they came to you. (In my post, Better You Than YouTube, I address the idea that for most “hard topics” – from sex to death to racism to drug abuse – it’s helpful if parents are the ones to have the early conversations with children. We can talk about these topics in small bite-sized doses, appropriate to the context and our individual child, without overwhelming them with too much too soon. This also gives us the opportunity to share our values.)
Sometimes kids bring up a topic because they are feeling upset or worried. If you sense this, start by acknowledging their feelings. Mr. Rogers writes, “If we don’t let children know it’s okay to feel sad and scared, they may think something is wrong with them when they do feel that way.” If it’s something that frightens you, don’t pretend not to be scared. They’ll sense that lie. Acknowledge your fear, then focus on other points below.
But don’t just try to dodge something they’re worried about. They don’t forget about it, they just think “Wow, if my parents won’t even talk about it, it must be REALLY scary.”
Clarify the question and their current knowledge
Be sure you know what they’re asking, so you don’t give them more information than they are ready for. Then give age appropriate short answers. You only need to share basic information, not graphic details. Then ask “does that answer your question, or is there anything else you wanted to know?”
You can assess what they already know by starting with an open-ended question: “What have you heard about _____?” You can guess what information they need based on that.
Talk about how likely (or unlikely) this thing is to happen.
If they are frightened of an imaginary thing, acknowledge the fear (don’t dismiss it), ask them more about their fear to see if you can figure out what is triggering it and minimize that. Help them recognize that monsters don’t exist in the real world – ask them if they’ve ever seen one in person. Read more about Helping a Child Overcome Bedtime Fears.
If they are frightened of something that is real, but highly unlikely to happen to them, you can share that. For example, if they see a video with lava flowing through a neighborhood in Hawaii or a hurricane on the Gulf Coast, you can tell them they’re safe from both at your home in Nebraska.
If they are frightened of something that may actually happen to them (an earthquake in California, a tornado in Kansas, a shooting anywhere), acknowledge that while you don’t expect that it will happen, it is possible, and tell them what preparations you have made “just in case”… reassure them that there is a plan.
Talk about what we do to prevent it from happening or prevent it from being a big problem.
Don’t promise that you can prevent things that you have no control over.
But, do talk about what you do to try to prevent problems. For example, if a child is worried about a car accident, you can talk about how you drive as safely as you can and how you make sure they’re always in their car seat. Talk about the steps you take to prevent a fire from happening, but also show them you have a fire extinguisher and also teach them about your evacuation plan. Daniel Tiger has episodes about making an emergency plan, putting together a safety kit, and how to look for the helpers: http://pbskids.org/learn/when-something-scary-happens/
Tell them how they would know this thing was happening.
I find that sometimes adults forget to tell kids this part. For example, they go through a whole earthquake drill without ever explaining what an earthquake is or how a child could tell that it was happening. Give only basic details without graphic or frightening images. For an earthquake, you might say “Have you ever been inside a bounce house or on a trampoline, and it’s bouncing up and down and it’s hard for you to walk? Imagine the ground here was moving like that.” You could show a picture of something like cereal boxes that had fallen off grocery store shelves in an earthquake, but don’t show a picture of collapsed buildings. These basic facts aren’t fright-inducing, but are enough to explain why they want to Drop, Cover, and Hold.
For some topics, it’s helpful to tell kids ‘there may be a time when you worry that maybe, just maybe, this thing is happening, but I promise that if it really WAS happening, you would know for sure. You wouldn’t miss it.”
Talk about what they could do if it happened, in order to make things better.
Obviously, the answer depends on what you’re talking about. But here’s a few key points:
- Stay calm.
- Find the grown-up helpers. (Parents, teacher, police officer, etc.) Ask for help.
- Listen to the grown-ups and do what they ask you to do.
- Do the things you have practiced doing. (Fire drills, etc.)
Talk about what the grown-ups would do to make it better.
Talk about community helpers: police, fire fighters, ambulance drivers, the Red Cross, people who repair electrical lines and roads and more, and community volunteers. Tell about how they help people. Again, be careful not to give graphic details about the bad stuff people need rescued from – keep the focus on the help that will be given. Point out that all these people are experts, who are well trained in how to fix all the problems.
Talk about how their parents, teachers, and other caring adults will help them to be safe. (Address the fears your child brings up… For example, if they ask about “will my dog be OK” then you answer that, but it’s better not to introduce a fear your child hasn’t brought up by saying “your dog might run away, but don’t worry, we’ll find him”. You meant to be reassuring, but you may have just introduced another thing to worry about.)
Talk about how even if bad things happens to people, people are tough and resilient, and pull together and make it through.
It can be helpful to read books that have positive stories about people who have faced any of the things your child is frightened of and have come out OK in the end. This can help to educate them with correct information about the topic, help them think through what would be done in that situation, learn about how people cope with things, and be a good lead-in to a discussion about the feelings that would come up in that situation.
Here are helpful resources:
- Primrose Schools recommends a few books on natural disasters and offers tips on how to use them with young children.
- Reading Rockets recommends books on natural disasters, for elementary age kids, with an emphasis on understanding the science behind them.
- Save the Children. Recommendations for books for pre-K through grade 5. Several on building emotional resilience / overcoming fears, understanding how to prepare for emergencies, and responding to disasters.
Be sure to preview these books before reading any to your child. What is appropriate and reassuring to some children could be distressing to others.
More resources on specific topics
- Scary Things in the News: www.childrennow.org/parenting-resources/seen-tv/ and www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Talking-To-Children-About-Tragedies-and-Other-News-Events.aspx and www.fredrogers.org/parents/special-challenges/tragic-events.php
- Gun Violence. This is a great article with links to LOTS more excellent resources: www.colorincolorado.org/article/15-tips-talking-children-about-school-violence
- War: www.parentingpress.com/brochure/war.pdf
- Earthquakes: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2017/01/23/earthquake-preparedness/
- Natural Disasters: www.girlscouts.org/en/raising-girls/happy-and-healthy/happy/kids-and-natural-disasters-hurricane-earthquake.html
- Helping a Child in Distress (“Psychological First Aid”: www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources//pfa_parent_tips_for_helping_preschool_age_children_after_disasters.pdf
Here’s a free printable handout on Talking about Scary Topics you can share with others.
Here’s a graphic you can copy and share anywhere: