When my 2-year-old niece walks into the room, I quickly change the channel from the news to a more kid-friendly cartoon. I know that she is too young to comprehend the images that have been flooding the television in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. The truth is, there are many disturbing images and stories on the news each night, and you cannot shield your child from them forever. Whether it's a natural disaster like the earthquake in Haiti, or the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s recent birthday, there are subjects that require you to explain some adult concepts to your young children. Consider these strategies when speaking with your children.
Be respectful of her questions Don't shy away from difficult subjects because you're not ready to answer them. As we all know, children do things in their own time and your child may be ready to ask questions on topics you didn't know she was thinking about. If you're not prepared to answer them at the moment she asks (say, as you're walking into church), tell her "I'm glad you asked me about that. Let's talk about it tonight at dinner." Give her a specific time you will follow up with her and praise her for coming to you with her question. Brushing her question under the rug makes her think the issue is unimportant or taboo, which is likely not the case.
Use clear and simple language This may be the most challenging part of your job as the parent answering the question. Taking a complex subject and breaking it down so your child can understand is important, but how do you do it without compromising the integrity of the subject? Think about the core of the issue and the key players involved. For example, you can tell early elementary age students that Dr. King wanted people to be nice to each other, even if they looked different from one another. You can give examples of how you interact with neighbors that look different or celebrate different holidays. Keep your explanation clear and concise.
Be honest about your emotionsWhat do you do when your child looks at you, wide-eyed, and says "Mommy, were you scared?" Be honest. Tell her "I was scared when I heard about the forest fire but I know that the firemen are doing their job and keeping everyone safe." It's fine to admit you are scared, frustrated, or disappointed but don't dwell on it and always reassure her people are working to resolve the situation.
Talk to the teacherAsk your child's teacher what she is telling the children in class. She may be using certain terms or showing certain images in class that you can reinforce with your child at home. As with all subjects, it's best for school and home to be on the same page.
Use an outside source Check websites or books that may offer an additional way to engage your child on the subject. Sites like www.scholastic.comand www.brainpop.comoften offer age-appropriate information on current events. Brain Pop features videos on a variety of subjects and each video has a quiz at the end so you can evaluate your child's comprehension. Be sure to view the video or read the book before you show it to your child so you make sure you are comfortable with the information presented and you are prepared for possible questions.
If the current event is not happening in your town or state, your child may forget about it or move on to another topic. Follow his lead and if he drops the subject, you can drop the subject.
He may, however, continue to ask you questions after your initial conversation. As we continue to see horrific images and hear tragic stories out of Haiti, your child will continue to process this information. Again, follow his lead and if you feel he is getting overwhelmed, turn off the television. Also share positive outcomes, such as the 23-year-old student found alive on Monday, nearly a week after the earthquake. Be sure to remind your child what we, too, need to remember- even in times of tragedy, there can be stories of hope.
Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.