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Amy Pybus: Children and news - spare the details

During times of crisis, many parents are unsure of how to talk to their children about what’s going on. And their kids — if they’re anything like mine — can have a variety of unexpected responses.

We had an earthquake a few years ago during a day-care day. It was actually nap time so the kids didn’t feel a thing. I checked the news on my computer, called some friends, made sure everything was OK, then went on with the day normally. There was no need for the kids to even hear about it, because at their age they can’t comprehend it and would simply be scared.

When parents came to pick up, they were bubbling with the news. Did you feel it? What were you doing? Did you see everything shaking and rocking?

Naturally you want to process this kind of event with friends, and make sure everyone is OK. But at that point I wanted to tell everyone, please stop talking about this. In an episode of “The Simpsons,” the front of the retirement home has a sign that reads, “Please refrain from discussing the outside world.” I think I need that sign.

When children are very young, they really don’t need to be exposed to any type of bad news. Adults sometimes see a 3- or 4-year-old child in the room and think they aren’t listening to us. Or we think even if they are, they don’t really understand what we’re talking about.

Trust me, they know.

Even when they seem distracted, children are keyed into what we’re saying. They’re listening intently and looking at our response to situations to gauge how they should feel.

In middle childhood, from about ages 6 to 10, kids are going to know what’s going on. You can give them a brief rundown of the facts and explain why they shouldn’t be worried. Beyond that, they don’t need to hear any gory details.

If they ask questions, answer them honestly and directly, but don’t embellish or explain beyond the facts. If they’re scared, acknowledge that it’s a real feeling and it’s OK to be scared, but move on.

By the tween years kids are aware of danger, and can sometimes become panicky. My husband had some good advice for our son the last time he got scared. He said when you’re in a scary situation, look at the people around you. If they seem calm, then you be calm (and I would add, look at the people around you, and don’t get sucked into panic).

At any stage, don’t approach children with bad news if you don’t have to. If they’re in school, they’ll probably hear it on their own and the rumors may need some straightening out. But if your child is happily playing with their toy trains, resist the temptation to interrupt and explain the statistical probability of a tornado hitting your house.

Before superstorm Sandy, our fire chief posted an excellent comment on Facebook: “Always prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” He called for a measured response and for people to remain calm, as the predictions for our area seemed manageable. Be ready, but no need for panic. It just made me feel better. Our kids need the same.

In this age of overly-intellectual parenting, when we believe that our babies have sprung from our wombs as fully-formed adults, we tend to forget about the magic of childhood. The fact is a child’s imagination can and will picture anything happening, and they will believe it to be real.

To this day, there are things I don’t want my kids to see. Heck, there are things I don’t want to see. Some Facebook friends post pictures that I know are well-intentioned, but just turn my stomach (i.e. something gruesome to show the horrors of animal testing). If PBS or BBC news comes on, I switch the channel. My kids don’t need to see daily reports from a war zone.

But they need to be informed, some would argue. Children should be informed only to the level of what they will comprehend, and what they can process. That is the most important thing to remember when talking about not just disasters, but many difficult topics we find ourselves explaining in life.

As a child, I wanted to know that everything was OK. My father would scoff at my worries and say, “What could go wrong? Nothing bad is gonna happen.” That was the best thing I could hear when I was young. And sometimes, it still is.

Amy Pybus of Easthampton writes on family life issues in a column that appears on the second Thursday of the month. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com and blogs at www.sittingonthebaby.com.

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