Whether they are brought on by Medusa or a death in the family, childrens’ fears manifest themselves in myriad ways. Keeping them safe but informed is the only answer
How to talk to kids about scary stuff
Darkness, noisy automatic hand-driers, going upstairs to bed alone, zombies, being lost, growing up and mortality have all figured as frightening forces in my kids’ emotional landscapes over the past years. Even the snake-haired gorgon Medusa made an unexpected appearance in my eldest daughter’s nightmares after she watched Clash of the Titans.
It didn’t matter to my then 6-year-old that Medusa was killed off by the hero or that the film’s special effects are laughably unrealistic. What loomed larger in her hyperactive imagination was that the monster could slither up and down stairs, which meant that no bedroom was safe from the gorgon’s terrifying gaze.
The episode taught me to be extremely cautious about what my children watched or listened to, something that was reinforced by the fact that my daughter wouldn’t let us forget how her daddy had scared her with an “age-inappropriate” movie.
But now that my daughters are ages 7 and almost 9, it’s clear that ignoring the dangers and complexities of life is not going to keep them safe and informed. Talking is the most grown-up way to tackle scary subjects, but what are the best ways to safeguard your young audience?
Filter bad news
Bleary-eyed and making packed lunches at 6am, I used to race to the radio to switch off the news because I was afraid of what my kids might hear. Maintaining this policy of avoidance and denial meant that important issues such as climate change and the world’s refugee crisis were passing them by entirely. The strapline on the cover of The Week Junior (www.theweekjunior.co.uk), a weekly news digest in the United Kingdom for younger children, reads “making sense of the world” and it’s proven a safe introduction to news stories in my household, as well as a spark for interesting debates around the dinner table.
The magazine is one of a growing number of news resources written specially for children. Younger kids can also tune into the weekly science podcast in English at www.funkidslive.com, while the multilingual news website www.spacescoop.org hopes to persuade children who are 8 and older that science and technology aren’t dull.
Tackle the difficult subjects with honesty
Parts of The Lion King and Coco are guaranteed to make my youngest daughter cry with such heartfelt sobs that it’s painful to watch. She has shed far bigger tears over the death of fictional characters in these films than at her grandmother’s death, but then worries about reminding me of my own grief; a contrast that illustrates how complex responses to death can be for children as well as adults.
Such reactions are often predetermined by culture and beliefs, but respected advice on talking to children about death encourages parents to be unafraid of using the words “death” or “dead” instead of euphemisms such as “loss”, “fallen asleep” or “gone away”, which cause confusion and fear. In the conversation that follows, be sure to answer only the questions children ask, to prevent them from being overwhelmed with information, and to ask children questions in return, to make sure that they understand exactly what’s happened. It’s important to be aware that children grieve differently to adults and to let kids know that however they are feeling, it’s OK, as everyone experiences loss differently.
The website of the charity Child Bereavement UK (www.childbereavementuk.org) is a helpful and sensitive source of advice for helping kids and parents through the loss of someone close to them.
Talk about death before it happens
A recent study by researchers at the University of Buffalo, New York, suggested that watching Disney and Pixar animations such as The Lion King provided an accessible way to bring up the subject of death.
“These are important conversations to have with children, but waiting until the end of life is way too late,” says Kelly Tenzek, a clinical assistant professor in the university’s department of communication, who co-wrote the study.
Ditch what you were told
Telling kids to be wary of strangers or “stranger danger” is now considered a rather confusing safety message. How can children differentiate between good and bad strangers when both are smiling? It also ignores the fact that children are more likely to be harmed by people they already know. It’s far better to teach children to identify and respond to threatening situations, according to www.kidsmartz.org, an American resource with helpful tips for parents, and simple quizzes and videos to teach young children essential personal safety advice.
Safety outdoors and online
From common-sense advice on travelling safely on public transport to rules for staying safe across social media and digital platforms, Sex, Likes and Social Media by Allison Havey and Deana Puccio is an indispensable read for parents of teens. Havey, an American journalist, and Puccio, a former assistant district attorney who worked with a sex crimes unit in New York, use eye-opening research about teenage attitudes and case studies from their work on The Rap Project, an organisation which they co-founded, which aims to educate and keep teenagers safe, whatever they’re doing.