I’ve seen a lot of advice articles for parents popping up over the past week, all with titles like ‘How to talk to your child about the Paris attacks’ and I’ve see similar articles every time there has been a distressing news story in recent years. Talking to kids about the news when some major traumatic event happens is a relatively new part of staple parenting advice: I didn’t notice it springing up until my kids were a bit older and I think it was various school shootings that started it.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a bit wary about all this. Support services now available for children personally affected by a traumatic event is obviously a good thing, as long as kids aren’t pressured to use them, but the assumption of a need for a similar therapeutic model for all children is what bothers me. If I read an article that begins with ‘if your child has been affected by the recent news…’ it makes me immediately start looking for signs. I know that some children are more sensitive than others, but still the best assumption to make is that they will be fine because they are children. Obviously reassure them if they do ask questions, but don’t expect them to be carrying the horror like we do as adults.
Young children are just as likely to be upset over a cartoon or a film as world events; for them it’s all in the same abstract area of stories which raise the question ‘could that happen to me?’
Even as adults, we are affected less if a shocking event is far away and happens within a very different culture or group. To feel empathy, we have to make more of an effort to make a connection with the people affected: we have to say for example ‘they are mothers, just like me,’ or, if there is no other connection, simply ‘they are human, just like me.’ We are proportionately more deeply affected if we know the place and the people, or if it happens closer to home, or within a group we are a part of. That is just called being human. For children, empathy may be stronger for an injured puppy; world events may as well be happening on another planet.
You’d think that stories about children might be more upsetting for kids, but it doesn’t necessarily follow. I know that the full horror of the two really shocking stories I remember from when I was a small child (the Aberfan disaster and the Moors murders) didn’t sink in until adulthood. And they didn’t scare me half as much as the stories told by the kids on the estate where I used to go to visit my grandmother. They told me that their parents had warned them about a man going round kidnapping kids and hurting them, which resonated because that could affect me personally. It never occurred to me to tell my parents about this, I think I just knew that kids know far more than adults, so they wouldn’t have had anything to offer me. As I got older I laughed at my naivety in believing such a story, and only as I got older still did I realise what those parents had meant.
So let’s not assume that our kids experience horrific news stories on the same level as we adults do. They may express fear or upset in strong and intense ways, but underneath they just don’t have the complexity of understanding and awareness that it takes to really know the reality of how awful something is: that takes a bit of growing up first.