Leona O'Neill: We need to explain terrifying world events to our kids in an age-appropriate way

There's no hiding the news from a new generation of permanently plugged in children who practically live on the internet. As Leona O'Neill explains, that's why it's more important than ever for parents to help kids understand the more distressing stories from around the world

Kids can let their imaginations run riot after picking up on current events online

THERE are so many things that can worry our children these days, so much more than when we were children. My 11-year-old son came home from school the other day and asked me if World War Three has started yet. With 24-hour rolling news and relentless social media, it's so much easier for our young people to pick up on things happening around the world and wrap their imaginations around them.

My son told me that World War Three was the talk of the playground. He said people were saying that there could be a nuclear strike on Ireland and that he didn't want to go on holiday this year because people were shooting down aeroplanes. It was a lot of negativity to be rolling around in an 11-year-old's head.

Later in the week, my nine-year-old daughter asked me if the flu vaccine she had received because she has asthma would protect her from the Coronavirus. She said that there was mass hysteria when someone started sneezing in the canteen. She said the word in the playground was that they had this virus that was on the news. I told her not to worry about it. It was just a cold. But little minds can conjure up big dramas fuelled by what they see – and only half comprehend – in the media.

I remember putting my daughter to bed a while back and she asked me where I was going the next day. I said I was working in Strabane. She sat up, alarmed. I don't want you to go, she said. "Why not?", I asked her. She explained that she had been watching documentaries on YouTube that day and that Strabane was always being hit by earthquakes and big tsunamis.

I cast my mind back. Having worked in the north west for 15 years now, I was pretty sure I would have heard about either an earthquake or tsunami in Strabane. I asked her if she was sure it was Strabane. That I knew the good people of Strabane never experienced an earthquake and, apart from a big flood in 1987, a tsunami either. She was adamant that it was and that she didn't want me to go. I asked her to show me the video and she looked it up.

"Wait," she said when the video loaded. "It's Japan, not Strabane, I'm always getting them mixed up."

My point is that she knew Strabane was just up the road, that I frequent the place, thought that it was plagued by extreme weather and geological events and spent precious time worrying about it.

There will continue to be times in our global history when the world will seem to be in real crisis. But what makes this era somewhat different for our children is that our kids are seeing it all – terrorist attacks, the world on the brink of war, nuclear and chemical weapon threats, bomb strikes, extreme weather events, biological threats – on their computer, tablet or phone screens.

If they do see it, we need to be there to interpret what is happening and break it down in a digestible, understandable and non-threatening way for them. We need to be there with the reality of the situation. We don't need our kids feeling frightened and less safe in the world than they need to be.

At the same time, there's no escaping world events. We have terrorist attacks and world leaders threatening war. We have major health scares appearing on the front pages of our newspapers. Our kids are going to pick up on those details either in our homes when the news is on, or second-hand from their friends who are worried about it and talking about it at school.

We can either ignore it and let their imaginations go wild or we can break it down for them in reasonable and rational terms. Explain in a age-appropriate way what is happening and assure them that we will do our jobs and keep them safe.

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