Talking to Kids About Scary Events

February 20, 2014

Mercy’s four-state area is reeling after the abduction and murder of 10-year-old Hailey Owens. She was taken by a stranger while walking near her Springfield, Mo., home. As we all try to come to terms with what happened, parents are also challenged to talk to their kids in an appropriate manner. Mercy Kid’s behavioral health experts have some advice for this situation and other tragedies that may leave kids with questions about their own safety.

  1. Avoid watching too much news, and with younger children, turn it off. As Mercy psychologist Dr. Joyce Noble, Ph.D., explains, they may not understand the event only happened once. “The more they see it, the more they think something like this is common. It isn’t. So we as adults need to find out what their fears are and help them make a realistic risk assessment.”
  2. Talk to your kids. If you aren’t sure whether they know what happened, ask a general question like, “What was everyone talking about today at school?” If they know what happened, you need to address it. “Provide simple, but honest information,” suggests Mercy psychologist Dr. Angel Gill-Taylor, Psy.D. “There may be things they don’t know or don’t need to know. Just remind them if they have further questions they can come to you, but don’t overwhelm them with too many facts at first.”
  3. Realize how important an ongoing dialogue is. Mercy psychologist Dr. Bobbi Craigmyle, Psy.D, has studied sociopathic behavior and says perpetrators usually begin with minor offenses. “Sometimes they practice by being just a little inappropriate with children for whom they are responsible. That way they can deny any wrongdoing and are more likely get by with it.” So tell your children to let you know if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable, even an adult who’s supposed to be in charge.
  4. Use this as a time to talk about safety rules. “It can help kids feel more in control if they have a plan in place,” advises Dr. Noble. “Reassure them they’re safe and you will do everything you can to keep them safe, but that they can help themselves, too. Talk to them about running away from strangers who try to talk to them or where to hit someone if grabbed . Remind them to tell you if something happens they don’t feel was right – even if it happened while they were breaking a rule. And create a code word in case someone they know has to pick them up unexpectedly. Tell them not to get in the vehicle unless the person knows the code.”
  5. Encourage your child to use creative ways to express their emotions. “They may not have the words to express what they’re feeling,” explains Dr. Gill-Taylor. “So drawing or imaginative play may give them a good outlet.”
  6. Keep your routines as normal as possible. “Kids will judge the severity of what has occurred and how likely it is to occur again by how much their routines change,” advises Mercy Kids psychologist Dr. Gahan Fallone, Ph.D. “Things that aren’t safe for kids to do now probably weren’t safe for them to do before this happened. So you can always say, ‘It’s never been safe for you to do that.’”
  7. Spend some quality time with your kids. Dr. Fallone suggests an activity that doesn’t involve an electronic screen. “Bake something, color, play a game. Let them know you are there and you care. If they ask why you’re doing this, tell them, ‘I just enjoy spending time with you.’”
  8. Do something positive for others. Events like these can often leave us all feeling like the world is a dark and scary place. Do what you can to brighten it. “It’s a great idea to encourage your kids to think of a project that can help spread kindness to others,” says Dr. Noble. “Most communities have multiple non-profit agencies that do work for children in need. Let your kids choose one and make a plan for how they would like to help.”