Those of you have been following this blog know I have a daughter (Charlie) who is 9-years-old. She is a super bright kid and always has tons of questions. We were driving to her dance studio earlier this week listening to the radio. (I love to hear her singing along). Suddenly from the back seat, I hear her little voice saying she has a question. I turned down the radio, waiting for yet another round of 20 questions with Charlie. She then asked, “What is Ebola?” Crap. OK, well I launched into my understanding of Ebola while stressing the points that Ebola is only diagnosed in people who have had contact with someone who has Ebola, nearly only occurs in Africa and is not something she needs to worry about personally. This, of course, did not satisfy her fully and we talked about medical treatments available to people who have been diagnosed with Ebola and what she can do to try and protect herself from getting Ebola (i.e., washing her hands and avoiding sick people). This made me realize there is no protecting kids today from potentially scary news and information – they learn about it from social media, the internet, friends, radio and TV. Information is everywhere. What we typically end up doing instead is clarifying potentially false information they have learned from others and allay their related fears. Another thing we can do is use this as an opportunity to have conversations with our kids about bigger issues.
I remember two years ago there was the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. I thought I was so clever – I avoided the news on TV and radio while she was with me and made sure we didn’t discuss what had happened when she was around. Then (again driving home) she asked me if I had heard about the bad guy who shot “all of the kids” at a school. I asked what she meant and she explained a friend had told her there was a bad man who had walked into a school and shot everyone – all the students and all of the teachers. Hmmm, maybe I wasn’t so clever after all. So, I had to go back over the situation with her and explain what had really happened. We talked about why it had happened (I had no idea) and what she could do if she were scared at school. Interestingly, the magic thing that helped her to feel calmer was learning the gunman was dead and couldn’t ever hurt her or anyone else.
Remember in 2011 when Charlie Sheen was really off the rails? My darling daughter heard bits about it and wanted to understand what was “wrong with him”. This allowed us to have a great conversation about potential drug and alcohol abuse and how people can suffer with mental health issues. (I have no idea which – if any – of these were challenges for Charlie Sheen, but his crisis lead to great conversations.) Any opportunity I can get to reinforce the dangers of substance use and abuse, I am all over it.
The final example that comes to mind is the death of Michael Jackson. In 2009, Charlie was only 4-years-old, but was still aware of conversations about Michael Jackson’s death by news media, teachers and friends. She was confused about how he died. This was probably our very first conversation about the dangers of drugs. Of course, this conversation was held at an age-appropriate level, but key topics were covered, specifically the dangers of taking any drugs (or medications) in any way other than how they are prescribed by your doctor.
What is your takeaway message here? It is really difficult in this day and age of technology and social media, it is almost impossible to completely shield children from scary and overwhelming news and information. Rather than trying to pretend it isn’t happening, we should find a way to share it in as non-threatening manner as possible. We can even use the information to initiate conversations about important life lessons (i.e., drugs and alcohol, abuse, violence, relationships, etc).