Once upon a time, children’s natural innocence was preserved as long as possible—which wasn’t always for the best. Many children fell victim to abuse because it had never occurred to them that evil adults existed. When a guilty secret touched the whole family, kids were aware that something was wrong, and inability to get an explanation often led them to imagine things worse than reality. And several generations of children, kept from the funerals of their grandparents, missed opportunities for closure.
Still, those often do feel like the “good old days” in an era where three-year-olds in public restaurants are exposed to television images of bomb-maimed bodies. So how can a parent protect kids from unnecessary trauma without leaving them totally unprepared for hard reality?
“Don’t talk to strangers” isn’t enough: many kids don’t grasp why friendly strangers are no exception. But you needn’t go into gory details of what “friendly” strangers have done. Just emphasize that:
In these days of 24/7 media, you won’t be able to completely shield even kindergarten-age children from life’s worst realities. Do what you can to reduce their media exposure; but, more important, take every opportunity to educate them according to your family values and according to real reality (not the disasters-are-the-rule-and-not-the-exception impressions generated by media).
When a child comes to you with a hard question, don’t brush it off with “You aren’t old enough for that”: if they’re old enough to wonder about it, they’re old enough to learn something about it. Start with a simple answer, then pause to see if they have additional questions or comments. Let them do most of the talking. As a side benefit, if the question is actually a lead-up to telling you about a real-life problem, you’ll hear about it—and take the first steps toward a solution—sooner.
One final thing. Much as you (and they) might like it, you can’t really promise kids that “I’ll make sure nothing bad ever happens to you.” Just let them know you’ll do everything possible to protect them and to teach them to cope with tough situations themselves. Then encourage them to nurture their confidence by trying new things regularly. Ultimately, an inner confidence that “Whatever happens, we’ll get through it” is better anti-trauma insurance than any verbal reassurance from outside.