Since mothers have walked the Earth, there has raged a furious debate about whether children should be shielded from certain news items.
My own grandmother was an advocate; my mother was not, believing instead in explaining things to us, if we asked. I often did.
Most news items are stories involving people, and I have always enjoyed a story, even the sad ones. Our life experiences are exponentially expanded to our benefit through the stories of others. Much wisdom and example can be gleaned in this manner, without the pain or time invested by actually having to personally experience many things.
In our times it is virtually impossible to protect children from the more devastating aspects of human life. News, in its many presentations, is all around us, far more pervasively than for any previous generations. News channels are often shown on television screens in airport terminals, the doctor’s waiting room, in electronic store windows and in numerous other locations that cannot be avoided.
Not all news channels have the same rules regarding what should be shown so many images can be disturbing, to say the least. We can also no longer “put the children to bed and then watch the news.” The news is blasting away every hour, with graphic and colourful detail, even on our phones. There quite simply is no getting away from it.
A news item relating to, for example, a natural or man-made disaster, is, however, not necessarily a topic to fuel nightmares. Understanding these types of phenomena, locating them on a map, asking questions about the causes and consequences, and perhaps even what could be done to avoid them in the future, are a part of education as well as learning to accept the diversity of the natural world around us.
As long as adults steer clear of divulging more gory details than the child already knows, instead opting to answer all questions honestly and reassuringly, children should learn from these incidents without being overly afraid.
Unfortunately, violent death, murder, accidents, unexplained disappearances and the like also appear on the news. These are more complicated issues and require more circumspect and tactful handling. As before, honesty is the key when discussing such occurrences with children, always aiming to reassure without false promises. Children eventually realise that you cannot possibly be sure when you say: “Don’t worry! This will not happen to you!”
Talking about how rare these events are, and how vigilance, common sense and mutual care makes them virtually impossible in their own lives is a far more truthful approach.
In many ways discussing topics such as these, surrounded by loving, caring family members; exploring preventative measures together, and what steps should be taken if something similar were to be threatening them, is the most constructive outcome of these terrible tragedies. Naivety and ignorance are not good forms of protection, even if caused by the best possible parental intentions.
Never lie to them. Telling them the truth shows them that you have faith in their ability to handle the information; it is your vote of confidence and will not be over-looked. Obviously, details should be kept to a minimum, especially ones that have the potential to unsettle or cause anxiety; but even these are better discussed at home, with mum or dad, than in the playground with scaremongering, sensationalist playmates – and believe me, if details are known by children, they will be discussed. Is it not then preferable for parents to be able to control the manner in which such news is imparted to their children, than to leave it in the hands of another child?
A life threatening health diagnosis is very difficult to deal with for every member of the family. At the core of it all – for everyone – is: Will the person with the disease live or not? Adults control their need for an answer in engaging with the complexities of treatment, which is a positive and forward thinking move. Children want to cut to the chase. Again: Honesty, while remaining positive and agreeing on the necessary next steps to be taken, is best. If your child seems to be suffering extreme worry, reassure them without dwelling on the issue.
Death is a part of life, sad, unavoidable and final. Although every death leaves behind distraught family members and friends, it is something we all ultimately have to accept at some point in our own lives. Trying to gloss over where “auntie went,” while they see you tearful and cheerless will only make them probe more, or distrust you. Showing the grief, yet concentrating on the positive memories is perhaps the best way forward.
If for a time you are over-whelmed, try to explain to them that you are sad that the good times with that person cannot happen again. Try, if at all possible, to keep your worst moments out of sight. A parent losing control will scare a child more than the death, or health issue, itself.
Sometimes the seeming callousness with which children react to such news is quite alarming; it can be deeply painful when they move in their mind to a time after the person’s death, with no obvious signs of pain. Do not be too shocked - they simply have little experience of the true implications of death. In their practical minds they are working on solutions.
Financial hardship, job loss and other serious personal consequences of the current world economy are also matters children need to be aware of. If you are worried, they will pick up on it, even if they do not know the reason. So sharing, at a level the child understands, is important for their trust to remain. They feel more valued, if they are treated in mature way, even younger ones rise to the challenge.
In their self-centred way, children will be preoccupied primarily with how this will affect them. Sitting down and agreeing how, with all the family’s cooperation, the situation will ease reassures everyone. Although it is not pleasant, and parental loss of pride, even shame, can come into this, ultimately it is a situation that can bring families closer together.
For parents to hope that they can keep it from their children is ambitious and naïve, in all but the most optimal cases. Again, discussing the matter in a reassuring way, especially with children over the age of 10, is probably advisable. Explain to them the steps you are taking to find a solution. Showing them that, although this is a setback, you are not allowing it to control you, is a very powerful and valuable lesson; one which will serve them well in their own future lives. If they are oblivious to the situation; then suddenly finding out that they are leaving, the effect is traumatic and severe. They may also learn to distrust you, as well as their own instincts in the future.
As in all matters where life strikes an unexpected blow, reassuring children that they are loved and that their family is around them, is most important. All other variables change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse; families endure.
In difficult or sad times, people around us are the most important and the most help. If you are lucky enough to have friends who stand by you in times of trouble, your children will recognise the value and importance of human relationships, and the need to invest in these above all other things in life.
Agnes Holly, BA English and German; MA Comparative Literature; Hornsby Dipl Special Educational Needs. Agnes has more than 25 years' teaching experience in various roles ranging from university to nursery teaching, in addition to on-going work bringing up 5 children