Answering chidren's tricky questions


It's always a tough call deciding how and what to tell young children about tragic events.

Do you tell them nothing at all and hope they don't ask uncomfotable questions or do you tell it to them like it is and risk scaring them with unecessary information?

In her book, Questions Children Ask And How To Answer Them, Miriam Stoppard believes children must be told the truth, or a version of it.

“When facing a sensitive question, you may wish to give a truthful response but feel your children aren't ready for the details,” she says in the books introduction. “You'd be right on both counts; but instead of copping out or giving a sanitised version, you can opt to provide the amount of truth your child can deal with.”

For example, Miriam explains in her book, how you answer a question about death will depend on their age and how much they can cope with. To a two to four year old you may say “dead means a person or animal stops breathing and their body doesn't work anymore.” But to an six to  eight year old you could try a little more information like: “Nobody really knows exactly what happens when we die, but our bodies stop working: we stop breathing, the heart doesn't beat, the muscles don't work and the brain stops working for ever.”

“Telling the truth means starting with simple facts and building in more complex information as our child grows up.”

Asking questions about complex matters such as death or 'where did I come from' is one thing, but how should we treat incidents such as the September 11 attacks or the Bali bombing which they may pick up in conversations, the television or from older kids at school? How much information is too much and how can we ask our children to feel safe in a world where these random events take place?

Dr Kathleen Alfano, Director of child research at Fisher Price who spoke at a motherinc conference in Sydney, says recent research shows children express their fears and concerns through play and we should watch for signs to see how our children cope during difficult world events. Dr Alfano said that very young children who cannot verbalise their fears are likely to express tragic events such as the Bali bombing by emulating what they have seen through role play.

She offers some practical advice to concerned parents of children who have been affected by these events:

  • Parents should limit the child's exposure to mass media such as television news and ensure that newspapers are not left open.
  • Provide children with themed toys that are positive such as 'rescue hero' styled toys as this enables the child to act out their feelings of fear and provide parents with the opportunity to analyse and relate to what the child is going through.
  • Provide opportunity to be expressive - provide creative stimulus such as crayons.