How to talk about scary events with your kids, according to a child psychologist

A child psychologist has shared her tips for explaining scary news events to your children.

In 2024, you’d be forgiven for thinking the world is falling apart – every other day it seems like some new terrible event is dominating news headlines.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen international conflicts, natural disasters, the Covid-19 pandemic, terror attacks and most recently, the stabbing spree at a Sydney mall that left six dead and eight in hospital. The scene unfolded on social media before our eyes, with stories now emerging of heroic acts amid the horror – including parents who shielded their children from the attacker and one dad covering his children’s eyes with sleeping masks.

If you’re parenting in a world where things like this happen, how do you protect your own children from these events – and how do you explain them? Should you brush it under the rug, or prepare them for the worst?

Child psychologist Linde-Marie Amersfoort has shared three tips with Parenting Place to help your family navigate these unforeseen and often disastrous events.

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1. Let them know that it’s normal to be scared and worried

There is no question that these events are unnerving, frightening or terrifying. We know it and our kids know it. So, while it may be natural for us to downplay the event in an effort to spare our children from the seriousness of it all, it is important that we let them know that we understand the situation might be scary for them.

Letting our children know it’s normal to feel worried, confused, or anxious, helps them know that their feelings are justified. It can also pave the way for them to talk openly about their worries rather than feeling they have to avoid them and “act brave” when all they want to do is cry and have a cuddle.

If we don’t make space for them to share how they are feeling, it may also deprive us of the opportunity to give our children the much-needed reassurance and comfort we know they might need.

How do you do this?

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  • Ask them how they felt when the house was shaking (or whatever the big event that may have occurred was).
  • Ask them how they felt when all the phones got the emergency alert.
  • Ask them if they are feeling worried or anxious.
It's important to reassure your child that as their parent, you are their safe place. Photo / Getty Images
It’s important to reassure your child that as their parent, you are their safe place. Photo / Getty Images

2. Be the place where they feel safe

As parents and adults, we know that the world is a big and complex place. But, too often, we forget that for our kids the world is pretty small and simple – mostly because, for them, the world is us.

And because we are our children’s world, it is with us that they can feel most heard and listened to, it is with us that they can feel most confident and strong, and it is with us that they can feel most safe and secure.

This means, even when scary things happen, just being with our children, listening to our children, and being kind, considerate and loving toward our children can be all that they need to overcome even the most challenging of unpredictable events.

How do you do this?

  • Practise listening so you can empathise and understand.
  • Offer to give your kids a hug – even your older kids.
  • Pay attention to your own emotions so that you can be kind and patient.

3. Do something practical to help them feel safe

There are so many things in life that we can’t control, but we can help our children by giving them practical ideas and skills so they know what to do in these events. This can go a long way towards reducing their sense of helplessness, alleviate some of their anxiety and worry, and give them a sense of safety.

Now might be the perfect time to sit down as a family and create an escape plan in the case of a fire, or practise the turtle earthquake drill, or restock the emergency supplies or run through your tsunami escape route.

These are all ways in which we can increase our children’s sense of safety and restore their belief in their ability to cope with these unpredictable events.

The world has always been a bit crazy

Over the past 100 years, humans have experienced all sorts of crazy experiences, and while these experiences can sometimes be tragic, unpredictable or terrifying, it is during these times that humans have almost always come together in solidarity. What is true of humanity is also true for families. If we can navigate these types of challenges well, they can actually bring families closer together too.

Linde-Marie Amersfoort is a Christchurch-based psychologist formerly of Parenting Place, who now works as a Child and Family Psychologist at Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand.

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