No parent wants to see the bubble burst on a child’s youthful innocence. Yet sooner or later, kids start asking hard questions about life in the real world. In today’s media-driven society, children are being exposed to life outside the playground at a much earlier age. News coverage of the situation in Syria and Iraq can leave a child filled with questions. So what’s a parent to do?

A generation ago, educators harped on the value of exposing children first hand to the realities of the past. Video footage of the holocaust was shown in 5th grade classrooms. Elementary schools tuned in to watch the bodies stacked in Vietnam. 

But today, experts agree that images of people being tortured and killed can be too much for children to take in. Parents should do their best to explain tragedies to children, yet they should do so with caution, and in an age-appropriate way. But at what age should we cover these tough subjects with our kids? 

“The age at which explanations about atrocities are appropriate is the age of the child asking the question,” answers Rona M. Fields, Ph.D. “Atrocities have become daily depictions on television, and killings are present in a child’s video game.” 

Indeed, it would seem that parents have no choice but to find the right words when faced with tough questions. When our children come to us, asking for an explanation about war and violence, we need to know what to say.

“First let's find out what our children know already,” advises Michael Ames Connor, M. Ed. “Invite them to share their feelings and their fears.”

When a child asks “Who was Hitler?” we can turn that around and ask what she knows about him already. Listening to why she is curious will help us to decide how to answer the question.  

Experts agree that if a child sounds worried or scared when asking about an atrocity, parents should approach their explanation with reassurance and comfort. We have laws and rules to protect us and keep us safe. In all situations, speaking honestly with simple words is a good strategy. Giving our children small amounts of information to digest will allow them to process it in their own time.

Connor also suggests that we “emphasize our connections with the victims and survivors, and help children to take action.”  

All too often our children (and even many adults) feel like atrocities happen only in the past or only to “other people.” Help your child feel the connections by reminding him that people are people, no matter where they live. A seven-year-old in another country probably likes playing games or tossing a ball, just like he does. By connecting your child to the victims of these tragedies, she will begin to develop empathy and a desire to help. 

Tweens and teens are old enough to dive into a more in-depth discussion. Parents have an opportunity with this age group to help their child develop empathy. Relating the events of September 11th to other massive slaughters around the world can help a teen to become a more global citizen. Ask your teen how these events are the same and how they are different. If he feels more strongly about it, encourage him to examine why that might be. At this age, a child can begin to process and understand the atrocities of our past and want to become aware of those in our present. 

Older children can get involved and organize student groups to do the same. Sites like Amnesty International can help get them started. 

Above all, being honest about tragedies is important. But remembering that we are talking to children is equally important. Parents need to strive for the appropriate balance between explaining and protecting.