Writer and broadcaster

After the Manchester attack: how do I talk to my children about distressing news stories? The Guardian.

I have only once actively hidden a news item from my daughter. She was three when Madeleine McCann went missing, far too young to know about such things. It became the big news item I shielded her from over the years: folding newspapers over, turning off the news if it came on. I knew that one day someone would tell her about it and of course, one day, someone did. A bigger girl at school, giddy with the currency of what she saw merely as gossip, embellished an already horrific story with details so terrifying it took me months to unravel the awful, native, facts – such as they were known – from the fiction my daughter had been fed. But, because this older girl had got there before me, her additions were tenacious and still, at times, colour my daughter’s view of the event.

I resolved to never again hide big news from her. I wouldn’t force-feed it to my children, but I wouldn’t run from it, either.

But, occasionally the news is so big, so awful that parents wonder what, if anything they should say to their child. Should we, anyway, be talking about world events to our children?

“Absolutely,” says Hilary Ann Salinger, a child and adolescent psychotherapist. “The problem is that you can’t protect children from information anymore. It’s all very well saying you don’t want them to know, but there really isn’t any way of insulating them because the news is everywhere. The important thing is to talk about it in a way that doesn’t feed into the hysteria.”

This is why it’s important to let children have access to facts, either good news sources that they can read directly, or information from you that is, as far as possible, unbiased.

However, there is a difference between not hiding news from your children, and purposely telling them it. Here, discretion and a knowledge of your own child is important and necessary. Some children are incredibly sensitive. (Also treat siblings as the individuals they are; you may need to sometimes handle news differently according to each child’s age and sensibilities.

If the news is something they may hear from someone else, you may decide to get in there first, either by “making it possible for children to hear/see the news”, as Salinger puts it, or telling them about it first. Be aware that sitting them down formally “does make it more of an issue”, says Salinger. “But the most important thing for all children, even teenagers, is that they need to know their parents will keep them safe. Thus it’s also important that children are introduced to any news story within the security of their parents’ confidence.”

Salinger recommends coming from a point of safety first when talking about news – reinforcing the good things about your environment: for example, that you don’t live in an earthquake zone, or that violent attacks are very rare, before going on to discuss the news item.

“Children find the randomness of awful news frightening, a bus crashing, an earthquake, a bomb going off on the tube,” explains Salinger. “And it’s OK to admit that you feel nervous about these things, too. Rather that blithely say, ‘Oh it’s OK, we’ll be fine,’ it’s better to say something like, ‘Yes I’m nervous about that too,’ but show that you can balance up your worries with the reality of it actually happening.”

Then will come the questions – and this is where many parents get scared, usually because they don’t know the answer. It’s OK not to know. “If we can be confident about not knowing and not understanding, our children can too,” say Salinger. “So many people, and our education, teaches us that if we don’t understand something we should shut up. But really, we should just carry on asking questions.”

If you show your children that it’s OK to talk about scary subjects, this will give them the confidence to talk about them, too. Avoid hiding things as soon as they walk into the room, turning the telly off, closing down web pages etc; anyone who has ever done this will know how keen children then are to find out what’s really going on – and that’s when their imagination takes over.

So avoid only telling them half the story and not allowing them to ask any more. Children tend to make up what they don’t know, what they’re not told and it’s often the stuff of their nightmares. Which is why resolution, even partial, is important.

So let them ask questions. And be aware that these questions may not come at a convenient time. “Not right now,” is fine if you can’t talk, but try suffixing it with, “Let’s talk about this later, because I’m driving now (or whatever). Will you remind me?”

Answer any questions simply, calmly, factually and as much as possible, free of your own spin. And listen to the question and make sure you answer it and no more. Let them ask more questions if they need to.

It’s OK to show emotion because you will teach your children that it’s natural to feel emotional at certain news items. But keep hysteria out of it. Children will take their lead from you. If you make them feel secure, in talking about subjects, in asking questions, they can use that to help them with it. If you shut down, they will learn they can’t “go there”.

Remember that children “puddle jump” with emotions and may ask you questions about something you told them weeks or months before. This doesn’t mean they’ve been thinking about it all that time.

“The important thing,” reassures Salinger, “is that we give them perspective, so that they can learn to discriminate and we have to start that process really early. I would always talk rather than protect, because I’m not confident of my ability to protect my child from information. But I am confident of my ability to talk to them about it.”

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 23 May 2017.