How are your children reacting to news of Batman movie shooting and Penn State?

Image: Denver Post

As details of tragic events in Aurora, Colorado become more public, news coverage of the shooting is likely to intensify this week. And with today’s announcements on the sanctions to be placed on Penn State’s embattled football program, we can expect a resurgence of news coverage surrounding the school’s child sexual abuse scandal.

Both are terribly disturbing stories, that will be almost impossible to ignore so there’s a chance your children will be drawn to the media blitz surrounding these events. As a parent, how will you talk to your children about these stories? There is no universal way to broach these difficult subjects with kids— what’s appropriate will vary from family-to-family and child-to-child—but here are a few general suggestions from Claire McCarthy, MD, on how to help kids feel safe after they’re exposed to violent or disturbing news stories.

Claire McCarthy, MD

1. Remind your children that most people are good.

Yes, there are people out there who do bad, even unspeakable things. But they are a miniscule percentage of all the people in the world—and that’s an important message to get across to children. People are mostly good—but some have problems, or have had bad things happen to them, and so they do bad things. Because of those people we need to be careful, but the vast majority of the people they ever meet will be good, not bad.

2. There are lots of people who can help.

There are parents and friends and teachers. There are policemen and firemen and EMTs. There are the neighbors. These are the people to consistently point out to your children, both to keep them optimistic and to let them know who to go to in an emergency. This echoes and reinforces #1—not only are most of the people in the world good, but there are people who can and do keep kids safe all the time.

3. Children can do things to help themselves.

There are simple things you can do with your kids that can make a real difference, such as:

  • Make sure they always let their caretaker know where they are. (This goes from not wandering away at the park to checking in by cell phone regularly when they are older)
  • Teaching them what to do if they get lost
  • Making sure they know that adults should always ask other adults for help, not kids
  • Teaching them the names of their “private parts,” and talking about good and bad touches
  • Telling them that it’s not okay for grownups to ask them to keep a secret (unless it’s Daddy asking them to not spill the beans about Mommy’s birthday present!)
  • Reinforcing that if a grownup ever makes them feel uncomfortable in any way, they should get away as quickly as possible and tell a trusted adult (you’ll need to talk about who the trusted adults are).

Obviously you can’t do this all at once—they wouldn’t remember everything and it would be too overwhelming. This type of talk isn’t a one-shot deal—it’s an ongoing conversation that you work into daily life in small ways. If you give directions to someone, use that as an opportunity to talk about grownups asking grownups and not kids for help. Each time you go somewhere like a museum or fair, talk about what to do if someone gets lost. Talk about private parts in the bathtub. Be brief, matter-of-fact, and positive.

It’s that positive part that’s crucial. Think empowerment. Because that’s what you ultimately want: a child who understands that there is danger out there, but is optimistic—and empowered to keep himself safe.

For more information on what to do if your child has been scared by violent news images read this blog on the subject, written by Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health.