Just within the past month, newspapers, TV news programs and websites have been reporting on the earthquake in Japan, tornadoes in the southern part of the United States and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. With all the talk, our children and teenagers have likely heard about and even been affected by the events.
But most children and adolescents do not have the cognitive capacity to truly understand the concepts like adults.
Parents frequently ask psychologists how they should talk about such issues with their children. Here’s what I advise:
Consider how much exposure you should allow your children to have to this information. While youth need to have global awareness, this awareness needs to be at a level that they are able to understand.
Young children – in elementary school this could mean that they understand that other children grow up in climates that are different from their own, wear clothes that look different and attend schools that look different.
Pre-teens/younger teens – as they get older, they need to recognize the similarities they have with other teenagers, including interests in music, the desire to be with their peers and increasing need to understand how they are similar to or different from others their age.
Older teenagers – it’s only in older adolescence that teens are able to truly understand individual differences and cultural differences and to have insights into different cultures.
Thus, the exposure to world events needs to be filtered and explained at levels that children and adolescents can understand and digest.
But even when parents try to limit exposure to world events that may be confusing to children, their children will hear and see things that need explained. In addressing world events, such as the death of Osama Bin Laden, parents should follow the same rule of thumb psychologists suggest when explaining Santa, the Tooth Fairy and sex …
Give a very basic and concrete explanation and then respond to the questions your child asks. In general, we tend to give too much information to our children. We talk too much and tell them what they are not ready to hear or understand. In our attempts to “explain,” we usually increase their anxiety and fears. Too much information that cannot be organized into a meaningful set for children tends to cause more anxiety or to be dismissed altogether.
We cannot protect them from world events and natural disasters, but we need to help them understand these events at the level they can to comprehend. When there is open communication with adults, children will ask for the information they need and ask for it at the level they can understand.
In general, adults should listen more and talk less. Answer the questions children and adolescents ask and be available to provide warmth and emotional support.
Photo by imperatricks (via flickr)