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Q: After watching and hearing some of the terrible things on the news recently, our 6-year-old son doesn’t want to leave the house. Every time we go outside I can tell he’s scared. How do I go about preparing my son for a world filled with terrible things without shielding him from reality? 

Whenever there is a tragedy in the world and I am called upon to help parents to explain the event or disaster to their children, I start with the same tip: Turn off the TV, the car radio, the computer. Mind your dinner table and phone conversations; your child is listening and watching. When big news happens, young children often don’t hear about it at all. It’s the children first grade and older who might hear about it on the playground or from friends on the block. But we need to do our best not to inadvertently expose our young children to the harsh realities of the world.

If what you say is accurate (“After watching and hearing some of the terrible things on the news … ”),  I have to ask in horror, “What was a 6-year-old doing watching the news?”

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, however, let’s assume (and hope) your son doesn’t really see the news.  It sounds to me like he is picking up scary stuff from somewhere. You need to be a sleuth and figure out what is going on and if it is coming from someone or something in particular.  On top of that, it is my guess that he is a particularly sensitive boy. So it is your job to help him process whatever he has taken in.

Would that we could protect our children from all the terrors and dangers, all the bad that exists in the world. You and I know that is impossible. Bad things happen, and children tend to pay a whole lot of attention to these. It’s kind of like slowing down to see the car crash. And of course they wonder if it will affect them. Preparing a child for the terrible things that happen in the world reminds me of saying, “OK, get ready, you’re about to get a shot. Here it comes!”  There is just no real way to prepare him. Life and experience will help him to see that he made it through, that he is OK. And he needs to believe that there are always people to take care of him and help him.  Too much emphasis on the existence of bad stuff will only confirm that it’s there and he better watch out.

Rather than explain badness, a better idea would be a view from the other side. Talk to your son about the good in the world. Hearing the news stories of goodness, of kindness, of jobs well done goes a long way in helping a child to learn that most people are good, that the bad stuff is the exception.  Our children need to know about all the safety that exists for us and for them.  Talk to your child about all the ways in which we are safe, all the people whose job it is to keep us safe (peace officers, fire fighters, crossing guards, security guards, etc.).

Finally, if you feel that your child is more frightened and debilitated by his fears than is typical, it might be time for you to consult a pediatric mental health professional. Your pediatrician can help you to locate the right person.