When Do You Tell Kids About “Bad Stuff?”

I recently got in some trouble thanks to a photo that appeared on the front page of The Times. It showed a baby in Zimbabwe with casts on both feet, and the caption said his legs were broken by some Robert Mugabe strongmen who’d been looking for the baby’s father, an opposition supporter.

I was reading the paper in the kitchen that morning, quite early, when my kids woke up, came in, and immediately asked about the picture. (They are 7 and 6.) So I told them. I said that Zimbabwe isn’t like the U.S., where you can vote for anyone you want; and from what I could gather, the bad guys who supported the president wanted to beat up this baby’s father but they couldn’t find him so they beat up the baby instead.

Later in the day, one of my kids ratted me out, telling my wife what they’d learned about the baby in the paper. She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind: Why on earth would I tell the truth about something that’s so plainly scary to a kid?

My excuses were pretty lame: it was about 6:10 a.m. and I was still groggy; one of the kids is a good reader and might have read it for himself; and I had couched the brutality in a little civics lesson about voting. But for the most part, I had to agree with my wife: this story would have been better left untold.

The worst part was that the story didn’t even turn out to be true: several days later, The Times ran an Editors’ Note explaining that the baby didn’t seem to have been beaten by Mugabe strongmen after all — that he wore the casts because he had club feet, and the mother lied in order to get the photographer to help her son.

A noble lie perhaps, but a lie nonetheless. Whereas I told what may have seemed like a noble truth when I would have been better off lying. Or would I?

This set me to thinking about when (and how) to tell your kids about all the “bad stuff” that’s happening in the world. We’ve only just begun to talk about Sept. 11 in our home, and in careful terms, in large part because the World Trade Center attack occurred just a few miles from where we live. We’ve dealt with Hitler a bit but we came to him through a back door: some books about Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics, which easily allow a parent to cast Hitler as a bad, bad man without confronting the greatest horrors. We’ve also covered World War II to some degree, since both the kids’ grandfathers fought in it, but we’ve so far avoided the Holocaust for the most part — because, again, it’s closer to home since we’re Jewish.

But is avoidance a good strategy? And if so, until what age? What happens when a kid starts to learn about all this stuff on his own: does he feel betrayed by his parents, or perhaps buffeted by the reality more than if he’d been given it straight?

Articles like this one and this one advocate talking to kids at about age 7 or 8 because that’s when they can start to understand that the images they see (war, crime, etc.) are real and can impact their own lives:

Reports on natural disasters, child abductions, homicides, terrorist attacks, and school violence can teach kids to view the world as a confusing, threatening, or unfriendly place. How can you deal with these disturbing stories and images? Talking to your kids about what they watch or hear will help them put frightening information into a reasonable context.

There’s also the understanding of death — which, while child psychiatrists seem to think comes about in predictable developmental stages, like physical developments, I have seen come about much more haphazardly in my own kids and others. (My favorite line on the subject comes from my daughter, Anya, who, when she was about 4, declared that she wanted to be God for Halloween. Why? “Because he never dies.”) Whatever the case, kids certainly do come to understand that death is both inevitable and irreversible:

Children react to death and loss in a wide variety of ways. They may feel shock and numbness, sadness, anger, guilt, or transient unhappiness, the experts agreed. They might keep concerns inside, become increasingly clingy with their caregivers, or exhibit disobedience, lack of interest in school, sleep disturbance, physical complaints, decreased appetite, or regression. Children who witness violence often have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, noted Jane F. Knapp, M.D., FAAP, director of the division of emergency medical services, Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo.

From the literature I’ve looked at, emotional disorders are a real and prevalent concern whenever kids are exposed to a tragedy, even indirectly. Consider the following, from an article by Paramjit Joshi and Shulamit Lewin in Psychiatric Annals:

“Children growing up exposed to sustained trauma and violence are at increased risk for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse … Even 2 years after the Oklahoma City bombing, 16 percent of children living 100 miles away from Oklahoma City were still experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms … Three phenomena have been identified in children exposed to persistent and extreme violence: fear, aggression, and desensitization.”

And consider the following, from an article by M.W. Otto et al. in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders:

[In] a longitudinal investigation of psychiatric sequelae of armed hostage-taking in a grade school, Vila et al., found a 50 percent rate of PTSD in directly exposed children (directly held hostage; Vila, Porche, & Mouren-Simeoni, 1999), as compared to a 15 percent rate among indirectly exposed children (children from the same school who were not taken hostage). Similar results were reported by Nader, Pynoos, Fairbanks, and Frederick (1990), who found that 14 months after a sniper attack on a Los Angeles school playground, 79 percent of children who were at the playground during the attack reported PTSD symptoms, as compared to 19 percent of children who were not at the playground. Similar evidence of the effects of indirect exposure on children were documented following the Oklahoma City bombing (Pfefferbaum et al., 1999), and the Challenger space shuttle explosion (Terr et al., 1999).

Wouldn’t this seem to suggest that avoidance, if possible, is a pretty good strategy? A recent paper by Richard Williams et al. published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry shows that avoidance indeed has its benefits, even for adolescents:

Although the adolescents in the survey were indirectly exposed to the [Sept. 11] incidents, half of them felt threatened, and their own post-traumatic stress symptoms were associated with, for example, the distress, availability, and coping advice of their parents. In particular, it was also found that discussion about these events was unhelpful. Positive reframing, emotional expression, and acceptance were associated with lower distress levels. Possibly, these efforts enhanced adolescents’ feelings of safety.

By contrast, adolescents reported more distress if their parents encouraged them to seek help and advice from others. Adolescents who did not talk to their parents about the attacks due to concerns about upsetting them also reported high levels of post-traumatic symptoms and distress, but this finding was specific to young people who reported having highly supportive parents. The authors conjecture that their parents’ recommendations for them to seek help might have been interpreted by their children as signs that the threat was greater than they had assessed. Also, recommendations to seek help and advice might have been viewed by adolescents as a sign of parental inability to keep them safe.

A couple days ago, my family returned home from a long weekend. Someone in our building had posted an article from a local newspaper about a mugger who’s been striking our neighborhood. My wife was reading intently when I came up behind her and involuntarily said something along the lines of “Yikes.” This prompted my son to rush over and look at the clipping. “Daddy, what’s a mugger?” he asked. Unable once more to lie properly, I told him a gentle version of the truth. Even so, he was scared that night going to bed and afterward, and I couldn’t say I blamed him. Avoidance was looking better and better.

But obviously young people need to learn about the realities of the world, and I would submit that parents are the best people to teach them. These guidelines for “talking with kids about tough issues” strike me as pretty sensible. For instance:

A child’s concern: Children may be worried about mommy or daddy going to work. Children may be thinking, Will Dad’s or Mom’s office blow up? Or if their parents fly, children may be thinking: Will the plane be hijacked?

Response: Assure children that this kind of violent act almost never happens in the U.S. It is shocking to all of us, but most people are safe and will continue to be safe.

More substantially, here’s what Joshi and Lewin have to say about what characteristics resilient children usually possess:

Resilient children seek out positive people and situations, have an optimistic outlook, are motivated, have dreams and goals for the future, and show good self-esteem and cognitive abilities.

Which sounds like nothing more than a middle-of-the-road argument for well-rounded, well-loved, well-educated children. There’s a bit more on the subject:

Families that foster resilient children include those with parents who show an interest in their children’s lives, are stable, stay involved in their children’s activities, maintain consistent home routines, encourage open family communication, and emphasize the importance of doing well in school.

I realize that this entire discussion is, in a way, a luxury. Any family who is having a conversation about how to protect their children from the secondary effect of tragedy is plainly not in the midst of tragedy themselves. That baby in Zimbabwe is in a lot of trouble, whether he’s suffering from club feet or from a beating. I do not mean to lose sight of this reality.

I also realize I have provided almost no worthwhile answers to the questions I raised; but as a parent I’m muddling through. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts, strategies, and experiences on the subject.

[Note: I recently discussed this subject on the public-radio program The Takeaway.]


A parent's job is to keep the kid safe, loved, and provided for.

Bad stuff happens in the world, but a parent has to assure the kids that it's going to be OK for them. If the kid has some questions, be honest, maybe over-simplify if they're little. Like talking about sex, a gradual approach of need-to-know and as-it-comes up works well.

Give kids some credit. Back in the early 80's, Will Lee, the actor playing Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street, died. They could have pretended nothing happened, like Mr. Hooper never existed, they could have sent him to Florida (like how my aunt's cow went to "a bigger farm" --riiiight), they could have gotten another little old man who didn't look much like him, but they were brave and did an episode about Mr. Hooper being dead and not coming back. Instead of the hide-everything aesthetic that gave us twin beds for married couples in 50's shows, they realized that a simple, age-appropriate presentation was in order. (The show already had songs and skits about plants, animals, and people being "alive', so this worked as a contrast.) I digress...I don't know anyone who freaked out and became totally neurotic because Mr. Hooper went to the big corner store in the sky and it was portrayed honestly to them.



the mugabi story reminds me of the truism that propaganda in violent times often takes the form of the torture of children- if you look back in the annals of justification of war, there is invariably stories of the other side torturing children- apparantly to induce violence from people you need to evoke a powerful enough emotive spur, and this motif is the most effective


Children need to feel safe until they can fend for themselves. Your job is to keep them safe and make them feel safe. So, when your kid asks: "Will you and Mom get divorced?", the only acceptable answer is "No." It does no good to expatiate on human nature or how people change. Your kid wants to stop worrying.

Same for external risks. Tell a kid specifically who will keep them safe. It might be you or it might be the US Army. Your kid will feel better and get on with being a kid.


Don't kids take a while to develop empathy? I did - I knew, as a small child, about people being killed, but I didn't yet have enough empathy to care, so it didn't bother me. And by the time I was old enough to care, I was old enough to cope.

In my (limited) experience, kids are more scared of the monsters under the bed than the murderers on the news.


If a child is old enough to ask the question, then he deserves some form of an honest answer. The trick as a parent is to provide that answer in an age-approriate way that doesn't tap into to any of the child's pre-existing fears (if possible). If the issue directly taps into one of those fears, you have to acknowledge that fact immediately, and put the discussion into that context--since that is likely the reason the child is asking to begin with.

With my children, I usually start off with a very generalized answer, and if they keep asking questions, I get more specific from there. As a parent you do eventually develop a very good sense of when you should stop before you child gets overwhelmed or upset by information.


funny and well-stated opinion, it concerned about the reality we have been faced, and offer me an awesome way to deal with it...thanks


This seems like another one of those 'wow I'm thankful I don't live in the developing world' kind of posts. For example, when you are living in a context that is more violent, exposes you to such truths by virtue of the fact that they occur more regularly and more publicly then those kinds don't have the choice, and consequently, neither do their parents - parents must tell their kids the truth as a survival tactic. You don't survive in the backstreets of Soweto, South Africa by being naive. Therefore the question that you place isn't: 'when should you tell your kids', it should be 'when do people who live in a place where they need not tell their kids for reasons of survival tell their kids about bad thing'. The question you ask is overly general. It's another instance in which individual's choice sets are constrained by the context in which they find themselves.


Parents are typically more worried about their children than reality warrants. Children are a lot less vulnerable to negative information than adults give them credit for because adults have a somewhat biased view of childhood ("I'm smarter, tougher, and more experienced, so I can handle it, but my kid isn't so they can't."). In truth, anyone that has dealt with young children after the divorce of their parents or even death of a parent will likely know that they often deal with it more effectively than the adults impacted by that situation.

It's largely because the same lack of vast life experience that adults assume make children more vulnerable actually serves as a shield. For example, a five year old that loses a parent will (consciously or subconsciously) compare every future negative situation they experience to that loss; it basically becomes the base point against which all other points are judged. Since few things are worse than that base point, those children are likely to remain less rattled by negative externalities than adults who have not undergone a significant loss in their lives (since that experience has few or no equivalents for such adults).

Of course, this is based more on my personal experience than any scientific method. I lost my mother at a rather young age and was able to take the loss of my father years later much more productively largely because I had experienced the similar loss (it also made things like bad grades, getting dumped, and job losses seem a bit more trivial to me than they did my peers).



Modern parenting works by the Centrifugal Bumblepuppy principle--there is nothing on earth that cannot be made even more complicated and require more expertise and resources than it did previously.

Kids need to know enough about what is going on that they aren't confused or frightened by the unknown. They should not be kept naive to the point of social embarassment.

I need half a dozen research studies to tell me this?



This mother is very smart. Having not read the story myself I'm not positive but I'd imagine that she did receive some amount of help for her child and herself, made international news, and even got you to bite by writing a story about her situation (albeit secondarily to your lesson).

You'd likely have never written about this on your blog if she had simply said the casts were there because he was born that way...


Your wife is from the same "school" that believes that kids will never swear if they don't hear it at home.

Frankly, there are too many parents who try to shield their kids from any risk, potential trauma or reality for far too long. The result is a generation of potential couch potatoes who have no street smarts and will never participate in anything but scheduled activities. Despite this, they pick up their four letter vocabulary, attitudes to sex and the world around them from their peers who also get it in an oblique and dishonest fashion. A recipe for disaster.

News Writer

One of the greatest illusions parents have is that they can keep their children safe from frightening information, suffering, sorrow, and other depressing facts of life.

The secret is for parents to make time to listen and talk with kids. Being a parent means thinking about stuff you may not want to think about and being resilient yourself in order to raise resilient children.

My grandfather died when my oldest child was a toddler. We didn't expect a 2-year-old, who had visited great-grandfather infrequently, to notice he was gone. Wrong.

A school project required our beginning reader to bring in a newspaper article. After a hunt for a suitably sanitized paper, we looked for an article, which the obstinante child wanted to choose on her own. She saw the unfamiliar word "adoption" in a headline and received a sanitized explanation about how some people take care of children and love them even if they didn't give birth to the children. (Nothing about death or illness of parents or any discussion of premarital sex.) Horrified child listens to explanation and draws her own conclusions: "You mean people _give_ their children away?" It took a while to dry the tears and have a calm discussion.

Child is outside playing with neighbor when there's a nasty car accident about 25 feet away. Playmates all see the crash and hear one driver scream at impact.

My kids enjoyed Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but I didn't try to hide reality from them. War, death and accidents happen. I did try to reassure my children.

But this idea that parents should be able to filter and control life has resulted in a weird disconnect, where parents don't want to hear about reality. They don't want to visit grandparents who are going to die soon because they don't want the kids to grieve. Dear Abby's July 31 column has a letter about this situation. In addition, they don't want pictures of injured or dead bodies at car crashes or pictures of injured or dead soldiers at war in Iraq.

Pretending that cars crashes don't kill people and that no one comes back from war in a casket just shows how much people today are in denial about real life. People complain that teens think nothing bad will happen to them, but if they're insulated in a world where nothing bad is allowed to affect them, why should they be realistic about risk?



Oh, good grief. I do NOT lie to my children--I tell them as much of the truth as they are able to understand. Understand death at three? GREAT! Then they're that much less likely to jump out in front of a moving car, and they don't have to be bubble-wrapped like so many other people do who lie to their kids all the time--first, to make the world seem "safe" and then to make, you know, not actually kill their kids.


The greatest gift you can give your children -especially as a father - is a solid display of emotional stability. I still remember worrying about how my parents would react to things emotionally. When there were money problems, when there were marital problems, when a plotline on television touched on money problems or marital problems, I worried... worried about how they would react. I wish in some ways I had been able to express my own emotions without worrying so much about their explosive emotions.

As a sidenote, have you ever read the Little House books. Pa in those books was my hero growing up, specifically because he responded to terrible setbacks and disasters with cheerful reassurance for the rest of the family...


I appreciate your broaching this subject. I've got a 5-year-old who is not quite asking these questions yet, but I want to be well prepared.

I grew up in the late 70s/early 80s and was terrified of being "nuked by Commies" every night when I said my prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep... If I die before I wake."

I was not in a family where I felt I could gain any solace by turning to my parents for answers. I am hopeful that my husband and I are providing a more nurturing environment for our daughter and, while it is the nature of children to obsess over global concerns, she might not be as traumatized by those thoughts as I believe I was.


I take it the Dubners never watch TV news in front of their kids? My dad was a news addict, and given the long time "If it bleeds, it leads" attitude of news, we had daily exposure to the Vietnam War, fire, murder, weather disasters, etc.

No wonder I never grew up thinking the world was a safe place. But the playground kids convinced me of that more than anything on the news. If you ever want to see man's inhumanity to man, visit a playground during recess.


Great post Dubner. Thanks for sharing this on the blog.


1) Kids are tougher than you think.

2) They can cope with knowledge of bad things and bad people with the understanding that you provide security.

3) Their reality perception is different and any explanation must be appropriate to that reality, but *never* dishonest or dismissive.

To illustrate the point about perception of reality, my daughter was asked to draw a picture of a Christmas scene where the Holy family found "no room at the inn". In her picture the Inn had 23 floors - her only reference being Holiday Inn!


I believe we should look into our own past experiences when we were younger and try to reconstruct our memories of events like these (learning about bad things). After all most of the readers of this blog are adult and who else than us can better answer these questions:

1) What were the bad things I learned about (saw) as child?

2) What was the effect of that on my further development (emotions, character, world view, etc.)

I am sure answering these questions won't be easy but it can provide at least some valuable insights.

My memories are that the times I felt worse as a child were when I encountered something really bad and I was not prepared for it (I had never heard of it before). On the other hand I could relatively easily live through something bad that I knew about prior to happening.

Personally I think that shocks should be avoided because they cause most of the damage to a child. And shocks are inevitable if a child is protected for too long from seeing and knowing the bad things that wait for us out there. I think the best course of action would be to raise an awareness about these thing GRADUALLY. Trying to shield a child for too long will only make the inevitable shock even worse.



I have an 8-almost-9-year old, and this piece rings very true. Scary stuff comes up, and you have to deal with it in some way. I often tell people I'd rather have my son watch almost anything on TV but the news. I don't lie to him, but I do soften things quite a bit. He does get scared in a very concrete way (will that bad guy try to get into our house?) so it makes sense to explain why we are safe, even though there is lots of badness in the world. It's not easy, and there are no easy answers. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.