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. rubemode says:

    I’m with Chris (#14) on this one, maybe not with the same excitement, but I think his point still holds. Children need to be told the truth about the world. Children are sponges at this age and lies (regardless of intent) can leave kids with a skewed sense of things that don’t add up later. If the kids are curious enough to ask about things, you need to encourage that behavior by rewarding them with the truth.

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  2. adenacb says:

    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.

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  3. crquack says:

    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!

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  4. Deb says:

    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.

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  5. Jane says:

    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…

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  6. News Writer says:

    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?

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  7. di says:

    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?

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  8. RW says:


    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…

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