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.]

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  1. Mike says:

    What benefits are you seeking to confer upon your kids when you withhold from them the reality of certain things? Freedom from “distress” (a word used frequently above)?

    I guess that’s valuable, but I refuse to go so far as to assume that zero distress is the optimal level. It appears assumed in the Williams, et al. excerpt that more distress is necessarily a bad thing. I disagree, and it seems the essence of your dilemma: how much distress should your children withstand to attain optimal mental health? Surely it’s somewhere between 0% and 100%, but is it above what they are exposed to as a baseline without added exposure from you?

    Who knows? That’s a little like asking how hard you should try at a board game while still letting them win. You can only answer the question with your best judgment of the current situation. A rigid formula or strategy is certainly going to be sub-optimal in practice.

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  2. Katrina says:

    Funny you should bring this up. Last weekend, when I was visiting my brother’s family, my 9-year-old niece saw me reading the New York Times and asked what the pictures were on the front page – they were the skeletons of massacre victims. Like your kids, my niece is an excellent reader. I’m glad she’s curious about the world, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to explain it to her. At first I said “you don’t want to see these”, but when she persisted, I told her the truth, in about one sentence, and she did not ask anything more. About a year ago, she asked, What is terrorism? when she saw another picture of an explosion on the front page the Times. As far as I know, she hasn’t had nightmares about it, but I do remember being haunted by graphic images of death when I was a child.

    As you suggest, the best thing you can do is provide a stable, loving home. Each child is different, however, and I think that parents do need to be reasonably honest without “oversharing” – let the child lead the discussion rather than offering too much information at once. Thanks for this timely post.

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  3. Nina says:

    I think, as it has been exposed by some theories, that it is possible for a child to grow up ‘aware’ that violence exists but not ‘intimidated’ or scared by it in a paralyzing manner.

    There are ways to talk to your children without alienating them and still letting them know a softer version of the truth. I think you took the best possible route from the first question (baby in Zimbabwe), with a little bit of politics involved and awareness of the world’s differences. You might have escaped the second ‘drilling’ if you had had the time to hide the paper and explain what a mugger was, but not specify that there was one in your neighborhood.

    Unfortunately, we live in a world where children will be confronted with violence at some point or another – directly or indirectly – but I think the parents’ honesty is irreplaceable and much appreciated (speaking from the point of view of a kid whose father used to hide the truth and whose mother – the much appreciated parent – took the liberty and time and care to explain to us what the hell was going on with the world).

    If they don’t learn from you, they’ll learn at school, which is always worse and greatly exaggerated by peers. If they are conscious of the facts, they might even be able to enter an argument better prepared for the lies that kids make up involving violence, racism, war and the likes.

    You never said if you told them afterwards that the story behind the picture was a fake. You should. :)

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  4. Mickey says:

    I would imagine there are no easy, and certainly no cookie-cutter answers to these questions. It depends on the maturity of the child. I personally remember learning of several concepts which led to sleepless nights, and others which I believe I understood, but dealt with and continued living.

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  5. Mike says:

    I’m 27, and in some instances I am still learning to understand that these images are real. Beyond simply waiting until a child is old enough to not get nightmares from learning about these things (maybe that is 7 or 8), I think it’s never to soon to help someone begin to learn empathy.

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  6. Sam Carter says:

    Great essay on this topic from the other side (examining the lies your parents told you to try to make sure you understand the world accurately):

    http://paulgraham.com/lies.html

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  7. Rick says:

    There’s an interesting implied commentary here. It seems that teaching, or at least discussing, how to deal with emotional stress and/or confusion isn’t on the menu. It’s a question of exposure and non-exposure, one of explanation and context of the events and interpreting their meaning. Though I admittedly skimmed a fair bit, I did not see mention of teaching kids how to process information.

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  8. Jason Morris says:

    I can’t help but think that if you try to hide these sorts of things, they will be discovered eventually, and you will have taught your kids that denial is how grown-ups deal with these sorts of things. That it’s not OK for these things to be true, so we pretend they’re not.

    There’s a difference, I think, between being the victim of a violent event, and having a loving parent tell you about a violent event in a place you feel safe.

    Hearing a story about something is a form of practice experiencing it. Maybe honesty with kids will equip them to better handle trauma in the future. I’d be interested to know if there was any difference in the rates of post-trauma disorders in those children whose parents were open with them about violence before violence happened to them, and those whose parents weren’t.

    Obviously, I don’t have any answers. But I just wanted to say that I think even here, honesty may be the best policy.

    My son asked me recently “Why did the baby come out?” He was referring to the birth of his new baby brother. I answered, “Because he had been in Mommy long enough already.” I expected more questions to follow, but they didn’t. I think the best piece of advice is to let the child lead the conversation, and give small pieces of information. They may not need the details. They may just need to feel like there’s nothing they can’t ask you about.

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