How Do You Answer Children's Questions About The News?

17/04/2011 18:48 | Updated 22 May 2015

tsunami, talking about the news with children

The day after Japan was rocked by an earthquake and a tsunami, my sons caught a few minutes of a children's news programme on TV that they never usually watch. At six and four years old I tend to think they're a bit too young for Newsround, which airs on the CBBC channel, aimed at 7-12 year olds.

'Mummy, a giant wave is going to hit Pinocchio!' said my six-year-old, wide-eyed with wonder. When we established that he meant Tokyo, I began to panic about how much he had seen and heard.

But I needn't have worried. I watched the Newsround reports online and while I still think my sons are too young to watch without an adult close at hand, I was impressed by how sensitively the subject matter was handled.

The news still weighed on their minds though, and crept up in conversation repeatedly throughout the day. I felt anxious when my four-year-old surveyed the waves crashing on the beach near our house on the way home from school, and asked if a tsunami would ever hit the town where we live.

How do you answer a question like that? Obviously my priority is to allay my children's fears - the last thing I want to do is frighten them, but I don't want to lie about the reality of what might happen in the world, either.

What do other mums think? Mum of two Rebecca says: 'I am still traumatised by my mother's explanations of the cold war and nuclear weapons. I was only six and it scared me to death!'

Rebecca says she wants to raise her children to be politically-aware, and believes it is important to explain world events to children, but advises thinking carefully about what to say. 'My mother went to Greenham Common so she was perhaps a little over-enthused,' Rebecca explains. 'But I'm still scared of nukes!'

As if tsunamis and earthquakes aren't enough to contend with when it comes to explaining the news to children, Jude, a mum of four, found herself having to talk to her children about local murders recently. 'I thought it best to explain a little about what the 'baddies' did, without wanting to give them nightmares,' says Jude. 'I think it's important not to hide these kinds of facts of life from kids.'

Mum of three Eve agrees, but cautions that children have a clever way of wheedling information out of adults if they suspect something is being held back. 'I won't lie to my children when they ask me about any such event or disaster,' she explains. 'But equally children don't need every graphic detail either. The key is to strike a balance.'

Victoria feels strongly that children should be encouraged to know about world news, and thinks learning how to respond is an important part of a child's moral development. 'I think children aged 7-11 are more likely than adults to respond with the desire to help when presented with news of a natural disaster, because they are not yet cynical and depressed about the whole world needing help,' she says. 'Knowing that other children have less and are in worse situations than us can help children develop their first real sense of gratitude, rather than just learning to say thank you because it's polite.'

Victoria also thinks parents have a vital part to play in helping children learn how to respond to disasters. 'Having a loving and trustworthy adult guide a child, protecting them from the information they don't need to know yet, keeping perspective, and modelling ways they might want to respond - with sadness, compassion or action, for example - is a helpful way for children to learn about difficult things in a safe context,' she adds.

Joanne Mallon is a life coach and behaviour expert for Ready for Ten. She says it's important to answer a child's questions directly but without over-explaining. 'Look out for physical signs of worry like bed-wetting, mood swings or clinginess. Encourage creative play like drawing, Play Doh or Lego to give them a chance to express their feelings,' she advises.

Joanne says don't panic if your children feel scared, and recommends channelling their energy into something positive like charity fundraising or campaigning. 'When something like this happens, which was nobody's fault, I think we all want to try and find something practical to do,' she says.

I love this idea of helping a child to assimilate an appropriate response to bad news. When the earthquake hit Haiti my son's school handled it with incredible sensitivity. The children raised money to help Haiti, and my son expressed a heartfelt desire to become a rescue helicopter pilot when he grows up, so that he can fly in to disaster zones and rescue people.

I think it pays to remember that, like Rebecca and her fear of nuclear war, our response to frightening situations or disasters as children can shape how we react to such things as adults.

And who knows, maybe today's inquisitive children are tomorrow's aid workers and humanitarian campaigners.

What do you think?

How do you explain the news to your children?

At what age did you start explaining to them?

Suggest a correction