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. AaronS says:

    As a doting father, I trust I have found some truths that may be of help to you….

    First, I seek to protect the childhood of my child, for he will have only this one, fleeting chance to enjoy the world without significant worry, concern, or tainting. And so, I don’t have a single problem with blocking shows that have profanity (what good does it do my son to know there is an “f-word,” even if he will one day hear it in abundance?). I don’t have a problem with NOT sharing with him the world’s concerns or even the concerns within our own home (e.g., financial, career, etc.).

    No, I try to ensure that his childhood is protected from unnecessary knowledge. Perhaps there is something to that whole concept of there being a “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”?

    Second, I DO seek to teach my child about things that would hurt him. I don’t want him worrying about electric outlets, but it’s better he do that than play with one and get electrocuted. Or to not learn the great importance of looking both ways first, and never crossing the road without mom or dad. Or the great danger of playing with fire or “manacine” (medicine).

    Very simply, some knowledge serves no purpose (at least at an early age). It would just worry him. But some knowledge DOES serve a purpose, by protecting him from something worse than worry or concern.

    And that’s the way I suppose we should go about it–on a “need to know” basis. Does a child NEED to know that children are dying in Africa? Not yet. There will be plenty of years when their hearts may break for those children…but not yet, not yet.

    So leave off the dark stuff until a child needs to know the dark stuff.

    Just my thoughts.

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  2. tanya m. says:

    Thanks for this.

    My biggest fear is that my young son, age 8, will only disassociate. We all do it; when things seem too big to fix, we emotionally shut down. What else can a kid do hearing about other children being hurt? Or species dying, or all the other things that are way beyond their power to do anything about.

    I think the trick is to let out the information in such a way that empathy CAN grow. Maybe it has to be coupled with a sense of agency, a way of seeing how you can affect things for the better. It may seem silly to us, but a lemonade stand for hurt babies, a crayon-written letter to a politician. . . small acts maybe, but they seem crucial in helping raise children who are not merely flattened by the pain of the world, or children who drift into mindless, consumering avoidance.

    I think this question requires great thoughtfulness on the part of parents. Its not just about our kids’ feelings. Its about how to raise brave, good people who will take on all these problems.

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  3. hildigunnur says:

    Hiding all bad things indefinitely is always an instinct with parents – but not always positive. Of course children need to learn about the bad, even evil, things that are out there. 7-8 years old sounds about right, the kids think for themselves, and read or listen to the news, you just can’t hide things much longer. It’s rather a question of how you present the realities, not when.

    My 8 year old is now reading the 7th Harry Potter book, having read the first 6 himself – in the series, as in the Grimms Brothers’ folk tales, kids get to be introduced to cruelty and evil, there’s a reason tales like those are popular, it’s a way to introduce the real world through bedtime stories and such. Banning books and stories with an exposure to evil is a horrible mistake, in my opinion, as it’s the best way to let children know that all isn’t necessarily always well in the world.

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  4. adora says:

    It is the same problem with Santa. Some parents are just more comfortable lying to their kids than others.

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  5. Mark says:

    I never weave any tangled webs. I do my parenting on instincts. My instincts are pretty much in line with what you did. They are so active when they’re young, they don’t dwell on sad things so much. One minute you’re telling them about dead babies and the next minute they’re screaming about an escaped beetle. (It hadn’t actually escaped by the way – it was clinging to the lid.)

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  6. Chris/Nashville says:

    You did the right thing. Tell the truth AS YOU KNOW IT… any time the kids ASK. Never lie to your kids. Never! That doesn’t mean that you have to disclose every bad thing in the world & bring-up, mention or go “hey son, have you heard about the holocaust yet?”. But if you get a direct question, answer it directly. Your kids will forgive you for being too honest. They won’t forgive you for lieing to them. And don’t get hung up on what momma says – her job as mother is to PROTECT them from the world… your job as father is to PREPARE them for the world. And it’s never too early.

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  7. misterb says:

    Let me follow on to 14 (Chris from Nashville). My kids are now grown, but when I ask them what mistakes I made as they were growing up, they mention two things:

    1) We didn’t take them to places they wanted to go.

    2) We lied to them.

    So, from their perspective, they wanted to get out in the world, not be protected from it, and they wanted us to be truthful with them – even if we still argue whether it was “lying” or “entertaining” (see Santa Claus). I should say that they grew up safe in an environment so protected that even it’s denizens call it “the bubble”. Children who grew up in trauma might have the opposite memories.

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  8. Justin Yost says:

    Thanks for writing about this and it’s certainly an interesting topic. Personally I would expose my kids to that kind of information. I am a big believer in the freedom of information, also I feel that if a kid is asking about something, they are old enough to handle the truth.

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