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Talking to Your Child About Scary News Stories

It’s evening time and the family is in the house, perhaps getting ready for dinner. The TV is on in the background and suddenly the news anchor announces, “Tonight we...

It’s evening time and the family is in the house, perhaps getting ready for dinner. The TV is on in the background and suddenly the news anchor announces, “Tonight we have a horrifying story of a mother trying to kill her children. “

A video starts and we see a minivan, with children screaming for help, driving slowly into the ocean. Two men run towards the van and pull terrified children to safety, but the mother who is driving the van, tries to fight them off. It appears that she wants her children to drown.

Not only do adults have a hard time understanding how something like this could happen, it’s even more confusing and frightening for young children who see or hear about a parent that harms their kids.

A child may think (and rightly so) that moms and dads are supposed to love and protect them. So, if this mother can try to kill her children, could my own mom or dad do the same thing to me?

Once a child is exposed to a frightening story about other children being killed or harmed, he or she needs answers to help them understand a unique situation.

These kinds of stories are difficult to talk about with a child, but experts agree that if a youngster sees something like this, parents should help them put the story in perspective.

Specialists suggest that the first thing parents can do is to reassure their child that they would never try to harm them and that they love them and will protect them.

Reports are beginning to surface that the woman driving the van may suffer from mental illness and that might be the reason for her erratic behavior.  Explaining, in age appropriate terms, what mental illness is may aid children in understanding that this was not typical or normal behavior of a well person.

When talking to your child about mental illness, it may be helpful to use a comparison to a physical illness.

For example: When someone breaks an arm, they can’t use that arm like they did before it was broken. They have to go to the doctor to get it fixed. Sometimes people’s minds don’t work like they are supposed to and they have to see a doctor so they can think clearly. Just like there are physical illnesses, there are also mental illnesses.  Someone with mental illness is usually prescribed medicines to help them feel better. If they don’t take the medicine, they may become very agitated or unable to understand what is going on around them. They may hear voices that tell them to do bad things. It’s an illness that has to be treated.

Reassure your child that what they saw in the video, or heard someone talking about, is not going to happen to them.

Parents can look for something positive that also happened. In this particular instance, you can mention that the children were rescued and are doing okay now. Remind your child that there are very good people who reach out and help others when they need it.

You can also emphasize to your child that, like the children in the story, if they need help they should call out so someone can hear them. Those children helped save themselves because they screamed loud enough for others to hear them.

When children are too young to understand the background on horrible things that take place in the world, many experts agree that they shouldn’t be exposed to newscasts and Internet stories that can scare and confuse them.

But if your child hears about or sees a story where other children have been killed or harmed, take the time to talk about it and help them understand that it’s a very rare event and that they are safe and loved.

Give them enough information to answer their questions simply but honestly, then wait and see if they come back with other questions later.

If you’re uncertain about the best approach to take, talk to your family doctor or pediatrician for suggestions.

Just letting your child talk about their fears and get his or her questions answered may be enough to help them feel safe and keep a tragic story in its proper perspective.

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About Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award winning pediatrician and medical editor for www.kidsdr.com.  She is a native of Washington, D.C. who travelled south to attend the University of Texas at Austin and never left.Read More