Tell Your Kids the Truth About This Moment

Children will pick up on things whether you try to shelter them or not. Being honest will help them make sense of tragedy.

Alexis Hunley

The October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck Northern California, where I then lived, shortly after I turned 11. It was not the biggest upheaval in my life that year—my parents’ marriage had just ended—but discovering that, on a random Tuesday afternoon, the ground could start shaking hard enough to knock you over was a pretty close second. In the days that followed, I was obsessed with news about the disaster, especially the deaths it had caused. For months afterward, to my older sister’s embarrassment, I kept a weird little archive of newspaper and magazine coverage.

Earlier this year, before COVID-19, before George Floyd’s murder, before our lives slowed down and the news cycle sped up, I started thinking about how children respond to crises. In The Atlantic’s May cover story, on rising rates of childhood anxiety disorders, I argued that even pre-pandemic, various facts of contemporary American life had turned 21st-century childhood into a petri dish for anxiety. By trying to protect our kids from all discomfort, researchers and clinicians repeatedly told me, parents were inadvertently preventing them from learning to tolerate the stresses and worries that are an inevitable part of life. And when people can’t tolerate their anxious feelings, a large body of research shows, those feelings are more apt to metastasize into lasting mental-health problems.

As I researched these issues, my earthquake memories drew me to the pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce’s study of Loma Prieta’s effects on local children. To better understand how they were coping after the disaster, Boyce in 1989 asked kids to “draw the earthquake”—and found that “kids who drew darker scenes tended to stay healthy in the weeks that followed, while those who drew sunny pictures were more likely to come down with infections and illnesses.” Today, Boyce says, he believes that children who reckoned with the disaster more directly and honestly ended up better off, because when we talk about the things that scare us, “it makes them gradually less scary.”

As has been observed and observed and observed again, today’s parents are more likely than past generations of parents to bubble-wrap our children—to try to protect them from both physical danger and emotional discomfort. What’s been less widely discussed is how this insulation extends to disturbing facts about the outside world, and how much it’s motivated by parents’ own feelings of distress and guilt and anxiety. “It sometimes seems that the more overwhelming the world gets, the more adults try to blindfold children,” I wrote, adding that if we really wanted to prepare our children for difficult times, “we should talk candidly about worrisome topics.”

But in recent weeks, I began to wonder: Does my earlier reporting still apply? Is “Don’t shield your kid from scary or sad or unjust things” good advice when those things stretch as far ahead as we can see, when just about everything—a pandemic, economic collapse, rampant racism, police brutality—is scary or sad or unjust? The short answer is, mostly, yes. As I’ve since dug deeper into the research about how children respond to crises, among them a parent’s impending death, natural disasters, violence, and racism, I’ve found more and more evidence that blindfolding doesn’t work and can actually hurt kids. At the same time, I’ve been closely following parents’ discussions about how to talk (or not talk) to kids about the tectonic shifts we’re now living through. Some of what I’ve observed, particularly some white parents’ justifications for why they have shielded their kids from the news of George Floyd’s murder and the response to it, is concerning from both a moral and a psychological perspective. But some of what I’ve seen is profoundly hopeful, with more and more adults starting to answer kids’ questions about everything from mortality to family finances to police violence more honestly, belatedly recognizing how much their kids notice, and having conversations that are overdue.

Let’s start with what would seem to be among the saddest, scariest situations a child might confront. Louise Dalton and Elizabeth Rapa, researchers in Oxford’s psychiatry department, study two very difficult questions: How do you tell a child her mother or father is dying? How, for that matter, do you tell a sick child that she herself will die? Last year, with the Oxford professor Alan Stein and colleagues, they published a pair of articles in The Lancet reviewing the research on how children respond to this news. The bottom line: Kids who have life-threatening illnesses—or whose parents do—fare much better when adults speak openly to them. Though this research wasn’t done with COVID-19 in mind, Dalton and Rapa believe that its morals apply directly to the current crisis, so they recently published a pair of follow-up commentaries arguing that honest communication is especially vital to kids’ mental health during the pandemic.

According to Dalton and Rapa, across countries and diseases, many parents try to keep their children in the dark. One Dutch survey, for example, found that even in cases of incurable pediatric cancer, nearly two-thirds of parents hadn’t discussed death with their children. However well-meaning the impulse to protect sick kids from distress, though, it appears to backfire: Other studies have found that children who receive little or late information about their diagnosis experience more anxiety and depression than children who are told more, and sooner. They’re also more apt to feel angry and betrayed.

Similarly, trying to shield children from the news that parents are sick doesn’t usually work. Kids are quite attuned to their parents’ emotional states, and can typically tell that something’s up. And unfortunately, as Dalton and Rapa emphasized when I spoke with them recently, they tend to hide what they’ve gleaned—even when they’re feeling upset and anxious about it. “So parents think that the children don’t know,” Dalton said. “Everyone’s pretending everything’s normal, even when it’s far, far from normal, and far, far from okay.” Worse, the conclusions children draw are in many cases even worse than the truth. This is especially true for younger children, who are egocentric and prone to magical thinking. “The only thing possibly worse than your mother dying,” Rapa said, “is your mother dying and you thinking it was your fault.” One boy whose grief particularly haunts her believed that he had caused his HIV-infected mother’s death by being naughty one day. “That,” she added, “is the worst secret in the world to try and hold on to: I’ve done something that caused my mum to die.” When parents do forge ahead with difficult conversations, however, the results tend to be the opposite of what they had feared. “Children who reflected back on it said, ‘It made me trust my parents. It’s brought us together,’” Dalton told me. “They didn’t see it as the devastating event their parents feared.”

How might all this relate to, say, COVID-19? Well, if kids are closely attuned to unexplained and unprecedented parent behavior, and you’re a kid whose mom is outside attacking the family groceries with bleach, something she never once did in your preceding eight years on this planet, you may not believe her when she says everything’s good and you don’t need to worry about the coronavirus.

A similar logic applies to racism. Whether or not their parents talk about it, kids are perceptive; they notice racial disparities. If you don’t talk to them about the historical and societal causes of what they see, various experts told me, they’ll draw their own conclusions, likely harmful ones. As Kenya Hameed, a neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, put it, “If a black child keeps seeing people that look like her marginalized, oppressed, in trouble with the law, dying, she may conclude that black people are bad, that she’s bad.” Hameed notes that this is one reason black families tend to be proactive about talking about race: Their children’s mental health depends on it. But white families are more likely to take the opposite approach, and their silence has a steep price.

This last part should go without saying; white parents’ reticence about race is old news. More than a decade ago, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s best seller NurtureShock offered a particularly vivid case in point—research by Brigitte Vittrup, who is today a professor of child development at Texas Woman’s University. It was notable less for what Vittrup set out to find—whether videos with multicultural characters could affect white children’s racial attitudes—than for the obstacle she bumped into: the kids’ parents. Of the 99 white families Vittrup recruited for the study, five backed out after the first visit to the research lab, with two volunteering that they didn’t want to discuss race with their children. Those who remained weren’t much different on this count; the overwhelming majority had never discussed skin color, stereotypes, or discrimination with their child. Most notably, when Vittrup explicitly directed them to have in-depth discussions with their children about race, only 10 percent complied; the rest raised the topic with their child in passing or not at all.

As Vittrup and other researchers have discovered, white parents’ silence on race can be motivated not only by animus but by a stew of other messy feelings: paralysis, fear, anxiety, hope that if you don’t acknowledge the problem, it will go away. The latter belief is particularly misguided; when she surveyed the white kids in her study, she found that whatever white parents may have hoped to achieve by downplaying race, their kids were far from color-blind. Instead, many appeared to have come up with their own explanations for why white people and black people didn’t spend much time together. Almost half of them doubted whether their parents liked black people, and they also had significantly less positive attitudes about black people than about white people.

Not quite a year and a half after Loma Prieta, in March 1991, a group of white Los Angeles Police Department officers was caught on video beating a 25-year-old black man named Rodney King. I was 12, and I watched with waves of panic, then rage, as they kicked and clubbed him. I’ve thought of that tape many times in the weeks since George Floyd’s murder, and I’ve wondered: Would I have let a 12-year-old watch it, and all that followed?

Since my childhood, and especially since the 9/11 attacks, the research on how kids respond to catastrophes and other tragic news events has multiplied—and it shows just how much children take in, even when parents don’t talk to them. Before 9/11, the thinking was that a child’s risk of emotional problems following a mass tragedy depended largely on proximity to its epicenter. According to the bull’s-eye theory, as it was known, children with no direct exposure to a catastrophe were unlikely to experience much lasting distress. But as Jonathan Comer, a psychology professor at Florida International University and one of the country’s leading experts on childhood anxiety, recently explained to me, 9/11 upended both the idea that those close by were doomed to trauma and the idea that children farther away would be unscathed. “We had kids at Stuyvesant High School, right across from Ground Zero, who showed remarkable resilience although they were there,” Comer said. “And we had large proportions of kids in the outer boroughs who were not directly exposed to the Twin Towers, yet showed extraordinary difficulties in mental health.”

In the months and years that followed, Comer told me, psychologists identified two powerful factors that, in addition to personal and family exposure, accounted for the wide range in children’s difficulties after 9/11. One was prior trauma. The other was exposure to media coverage of the attacks: The more news coverage kids saw, the more likely they were to experience psychological problems. This conclusion has since been replicated with other disasters, such as hurricanes. And, in a particularly heartbreaking finding, a study last year reported that the more time African American adolescents spent watching viral videos of police killings, the more likely they were to suffer from depression and PTSD symptoms. (Some observers wonder if this might have contributed to the especially sharp rise in black youth suicides in recent years.)

Not surprisingly, Comer is adamant that parents should be careful about exposing kids to threat-oriented news coverage—though of course, it’s far simpler to shelter a little kid from news of a distant hurricane than a teenager from viral videos. But he is also quick to note that he’s not advocating a retreat from reality; avoiding distressing topics is also bad, as he discovered studying the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and manhunt. In its implications for local children, the week following the attack had strange similarities to the early response to the pandemic: the abrupt closure of schools, a stay-at-home order, a sense that venturing outside was dangerous. Comer wasn’t surprised to find that, as with past disasters, large doses of media coverage were harmful to kids. More notable was what he found at the opposite extreme: Children whose parents attempted to hide what was going on had some of the worst mental-health outcomes. “Kids did worse when families pretended everything was normal,” Comer said. “These families didn’t want to upset their kids, so they didn’t talk about why they were staying home. But when parents show that something is too scary to talk about, that makes it feel even scarier.”

Child therapists I’ve spoken with make much the same point, and add that parents’ own fears are an underappreciated part of the problem—and on a range of topics, so are their biases. Samantha C. Sweeney, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., told me that when white parents avoid the topic of race, they’re not only trying to spare their kids discomfort; quite often, they are profoundly uncomfortable. “Many parents were themselves raised to believe that a ‘color-blind’ approach is best, so they haven’t done their own internal exploration around race,” she said. Not talking about it, she continued, “shields parents from having to recognize that the past is present and from admitting that racism still exists because white people help it to exist—and not just those white people, but all white people, the parent included.”

Parents may avoid other topics, such as the pandemic, because they don’t know what’s going to happen next, and they don’t want to frighten their child by admitting it. Emily Aron, a child psychiatrist and professor at Georgetown University, notes that this misunderstands what children actually need. “There are going to be questions that parents won’t have an answer to,” she told me. “Say that. Sometimes, we feel overcome by our kids’ emotions, and we really want to answer the question or fix whatever they’re upset about. But part of parenting is just helping them sit with their feelings and bearing witness to what they’re going through. That may not seem like what we think of as ‘parenting,’ but it’s comforting to a child.”

All of this raises an interesting possibility: By curing us of the delusion that we can fix all problems and explain away all uncertainty, could our anxiety-ridden moment lead to less anxious parenting?  In her forthcoming book, A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future, the pediatrician Perri Klass describes how the world—and with it, parenting—has been transformed by declining infant and child mortality over the past century. “In my grandmother’s lifetime, most people would have lost either a child or a sibling,” she told me recently. “What was parental anxiety like back then—when a sore throat could be scarlet fever and a child could die from it? And why has losing that unthinkable level of danger not led to less parental anxiety today?”

One reason, Klass believes, is that parents—especially privileged ones—keep elevating expectations for health and safety. Once vaccinations were more or less universal, attention turned to the next frontier in child safety, and the next—car seats, prevention of sudden infant death syndrome, bike helmets. In her book, Klass points to these campaigns as pediatric triumphs. But driving down deaths has had some unrecognized effects on what is expected of parents. “It results in a worldview that says, ‘If you do everything right, your kid will be safe.’ When a child gets hurt somehow, people now ask, ‘Was she in a car seat?’ ‘Was she wearing a helmet?’ We all wonder, could this have been prevented? My grandmother thought of the world as essentially unsafe, so I don’t think she felt that same pressure. If a kid got hurt in the street, people didn’t think it was the parent’s fault.” (To which I’d add: An even more pernicious aspect of this development is that it absolves society of responsibility for children’s welfare—with the result that even as affluent parents spend heavily on their children’s safety, other children are left to suffer the profoundly unsafe conditions associated with poverty and trauma.)

“To create a sense of security for children,” Klass told me, “you do not have to promise that you have superpowers. You don’t have to say, ‘I will never die.’ To help them feel secure, you can rely on old-fashioned things: children’s books—including ones from the unsafe world of 100 years ago—routines, rituals, certain kinds of affection. All of these can be very comforting. You don’t have to guarantee certainty.” In children’s stories of earlier eras, Klass noted, dying is a part of life, and uncertainty is one of the few givens (see among many other examples Little Women and Betsy-Tacy, both of which matter-of-factly feature death without being about it). In contemporary kids’ books and films, as in contemporary kids’ lives, disease and death are rare. This is partly because many modern parents steer clear of upsetting content—but as Klass pointed out, it’s also because art imitates life, and at least until recently, fatal illness hasn’t been much of an issue in the average kid’s life. Equally to the point, it hasn’t been an issue in modern parenting.

“When we talk to kids about hard questions, we’re forced to acknowledge that the world isn’t safe,” Klass observed. “Maybe we have wanted to think that it is.” And, as the past few months have made clear, maybe that wish has been not only misguided, but self-defeating. Maybe parenting can be easier—less exhausting, less guilt-inducing, less anxious-making—if we remember that some things are out of our control: Sometimes people get sick and die for no good reason; sometimes the ground shifts underfoot without warning.

In acknowledging to our kids that life is neither perfectly secure nor perfectly just, maybe we will find that we don’t have to choose between nurturing them and being honest with them, between raising happy people and good ones, between doing right by our families and right by the world. White silence has not rendered white kids color-blind—to the contrary. Regardless of their race, children are not stupid. They see segregation, they see discrimination, they see the world around them; they just don’t know how it got that way. We cannot hide the bad news. The choice we have is whether to leave kids alone with it, or to help them make sense of it and hopefully change it.