Helping children with bad news stories

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 9:24am

There have been a number of horrific stories in the news recently. How can I talk to my son about bad news without frightening him?

It is natural to want to shield children from the harsh realities of life but the fact is that violent and tragic events do happen and, as a parent, you can help your son learn coping mechanisms. Discussing the effects of wars, terrorist activity and local problems can help to develop a dialogue between you and will create a stronger and more open relationship.

In the past, it was possible to limit exposure to negative news stories but the availability of smartphones and computers means that children are likely to stumble across them on their own. You may want to lead your son to a reputable online news source which will provide balanced coverage without sensationalism. Websites maintained by the BBC and CNN are a good place to start. If your son is younger, the BBC website has a children's news programme which also provides background information to current stories. You may want to look at the sites together and discuss some of the articles. For off-line news, a quality newspaper may be too advanced so you may want to consider child-friendly publications such as First News

When you come to discussing events, make sure that you are in a safe space, away from distractions. The aim is to create a dialogue rather than turning the exercise into a liberal studies lesson. If your child isn't interested, don't force the issue. Wait until a more favourable time presents itself.

When you are discussing the news, you can emphasise the differences between your lives and the stories you have encountered. Hong Kong is an incredibly safe place and we have a highly visible police presence which may give reassurance to a nervous child. If stories involve train or plane crashes, you can try to give some perspective by finding statistics which show that these incidents are tragic but rare.

It is hard for adults to understand why some atrocities take place and you may not always be able to provide answers for your children but you can help them understand what might drive people to commit such actions. There may be a history of psychological illness or drug abuse behind behaviour which you can discuss with your children. There have been recent stories of extreme violence in Hong Kong as a result of methamphetamine consumption. The Hong Kong Police website has clinical explanations of the effects and side effects of the main illegal drugs which offers information without being judgmental. Discussing drug abuse may have the added benefit of allowing your child to discuss future encounters with you.

For any terrorist incidents, you will want to convey the message that a person is not representative of a racial or religious group. It is hard for younger children to assimilate this message so you may want to talk to them about places you have visited where they may have encountered different nationalities. If they can relate directly to their experience, they are less likely to see one person as representative of a group.

Local stories about teenage suicides are an especially sensitive topic. The circumstances will be familiar to Hong Kong children: exam stress, overwork, fear of failure. Children may not tell you directly that they have the same pressures and, again, discussing the story may be a way of opening a dialogue. You can offer a broader perspective and make it clear that there are always people to talk to. Kely Support Group has a confidential youth helpline.

By discussing events and trying to understand them with your son, you will gain a deeper empathy for his feelings and he will have a stronger sense of security. We cannot prevent tragedies from happening but we can create a secure atmosphere where fears and concerns can be discussed and these negative events may, in the long run, have a positive impact on family relations.

Jessica Ogilvy-Stuart is director of the Brandon Learning Centre and prepares students to study abroad