There have been a lot of tragic headlines lately that involved harm and fatality to children. The horrible gator incident at a Disney World resort, a gorilla episode that almost ended badly for a young child at the Cincinnati Zoo, the high number of school intruders, and gun violence at public places have left me and the rest of the world shocked and afraid.
A blog reader sent me the following question recently and I thought it would make for a great topic to tackle on Family Footnote. The reader wrote: “With all of the tragedies lately (alligators, gorilla, dogs) have you ever done an article addressing how parents/grandparents should talk to children about this without scaring them to death?”
When I read this question I thought about my own worries with these animal issues and unforeseen accidents. My family stayed at the Grand Floridian two years ago, and we sat by the exact same beach where the alligator grabbed that little boy. This devastating event keeps me asking “Why?”.
I know that I am always learning and definitely do not have all of the answers. Therefore I put the question (and included strangers and intruders in it, along with the reader’s original list of animals) out there to a lot of moms and dads. I asked for quick and truthful responses, and thankfully the masses did not disappoint. Read on to see how we are all in this together and by even just asking the question, some really great dialogues can be developed.
Discussing Tragic Events
There is a very fine line between not wanting to scare your kids, but still feeling the need to acknowledge that bad things can happen. The age of the child played a big factor in how much someone said to their youngster regarding tragic events. The themes of offering reassurance and taking the opportunity to educate were common in all of the responses I received.
Here are some great quotes from a variety of parents tackling the dilemma of discussing tough topics with their kiddos:
A mother of four told me, “With my six year old, I am pretty vague about heavy topics. She is a child that I don’t want to overly scare because she might keep asking question after question about that topic. With my eight and ten-year-old I typically state “most” of the facts about an event, but definitely leave out anything gory or that would scar them for life. I don’t want to scare them, but I think at this point, at least my ten-year-old realizes that we live in a fallen world and bad things do happen. I try to follow it up and reiterate that we are safe and mom and dad will protect our family as best we can. I think it just depends on the age and sensitivity of your child as to how you approach these topics.”
A mom of two daughters said, “I try to explain to them how sometimes in life things happen that we don’t understand and while it may be sad, I try to reassure them that we as parents will try to do our very best to keep them safe from harm. But that they as kids need to make sure they are always aware of their surroundings wherever they are and to make sure they think things through before they just go and do something, like could I get hurt doing this, could that animal harm me, etc. I turn the conversation into a lesson on being safe.”
A lot of parents told me that they are constantly discussing with their kids how to react and be prepared in the face of a harmful event, such as: stranger abductions, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, animal dangers, etc. Their quotes are better than anything I could write, and are so true and helpful.
Whenever a tragedy is aired on the news and overheard by my college friend’s children, she takes the opportunity to make it into a lesson. She said, “I use it as a reminder that we need to be safe. Even at the children’s zoo, I remind the kids that the animals are NOT pets. We also emphasize who the safe adults are at the places we go. They know how to call 911. I want to protect them and keep them little forever, but if I don’t prepare them I could lose them and that thought is terrifying.
A stepmother with kids in middle school answered, “We definitely talk to our boys about these types of tragedies, even with every day, fun stuff (examples: “Pokémon Go” and going places without our supervision). We’re always talking to the boys about being aware of their surroundings, trusting their gut, and realizing that sometimes bad things do happen. I don’t try to scare them, but I do try to make them realize that these terrible things are a possibility – a rare one- but, none the less, a possibility. Along this same line, we’ve tried to make sure they realize when it’s appropriate to “fight for your life”. We try to “spin it” that you shouldn’t live your life in fear, because you’re never alone with God and he always has a plan!”
A father of two had this to offer, “To date I do not talk about tragedies with my four-year-old and two-year-old as I don’t truly feel they will understand, grasp what is going on to date. However my wife and I do talk about stranger danger and discuss things as parents among ourselves. One thing I do is visit with my child’s teacher and I ask pointed questions regarding school security.”
A mom with daughters explained, “Our girls know what to do if there is a fire, if anyone asks them to come with them when they don’t know about it in advance (we have a family password), if the alarms or intruder alert goes off at school, etc. We try and emphasize that all scary situations are not likely to ever happen to them, but in the crazy chance that they do, knowing what to do is the key to staying safe.”
My friend and fellow mom mentioned a specific safety concern she addresses with her kids, “ I do like to every so often have conversations about certain “hot button” topics like stranger danger and sexual abuse. I try to bring them up at random times so that it seems casual rather than too serious. Like when I’m helping my son get dressed after his shower I might say, ‘Remember how we have talked before about who is allowed to touch your private area? Only mom, dad or a doctor. And mom or dad should always be with you if a doctor has to check there. Do you remember what you should do if someone other than mom or dad does that? Remember that no one should ask you to keep a secret from mom or dad. We don’t keep secrets in our family’.”
A Little Fear is Okay
While no parent intentionally plans to scare their children, a lot of people admitted that fear is a good motivator to help little ones learn that a situation is serious.
A good friend and father of two young boys told me, “Fear, when it helps you recognize and respect danger and dangerous things is good! Fear, when it prevents you from living and doing – bad! But I do lean a bit more on the side of very bluntly telling them the danger of something so it gets their attention.”
Don’t try this at home, but a (fearless) dad of four stated, “I would never try to scare my kids, but they need to know the truth about stuff. For example I caught a snake in our yard the other day, I explained to them that snakes do bite and it hurts, but that this was not a poisonous snake and then explained how to tell the difference. Then I actually let it bite me to show that it did hurt, but I was okay after it happened. So many of our fears come from the unknown. Knowledge is key to eliminating fear both for our kids and ourselves.” (*Leave it to dads to offer comic relief.)
Regarding the specific incident of the gorilla that got a hold of a toddler at the Cincinnati Zoo, a mother of three remarked, “I used the gorilla thing as an opportunity to learn about gorillas. We actually did some research on gorillas and then discussed that the animal had to be put down because he could actually hurt the baby without even meaning to because he was so strong. We did discuss it again during our next trip to the zoo, to explain why we don’t climb. I guess I tend to try and be as honest as possible at an age appropriate level and I try not to scare too much.”
My Own Perspective
All of today’s harsh headlines can be vital in jump starting some much needed education and empathy at my house. What happened to Lane Graves in Florida, with the alligator, haunts me. I lose sleep at night and honestly think about that boy’s mom and dad every single day. I detest having to admit that really horrible things can happen to absolutely wonderful people, but it is an unfortunate reality of life. All I can do is pray and offer support, while hoping others do the same.
By acknowledging, educating, reassuring, and sometimes scaring our kids, we may be helping them (and ourselves) face the world and its dark spots. I am grateful that I can depend on other parents and friends for these types of situations, and that while we can’t control everything, we can prepare for some things.
Do you have a way to talk to your kids and others about tough topics? Let us know by leaving a comment or sending an email to email@example.com. Thank you for reading!