As a travel blogger, Summer Hull is used to giving advice about airline points and flight deals, but recently, she’s had to equip herself with a different kind of knowledge. If her young daughter ever asks her about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Hull knows to choose her words carefully.
“We have had to think through what to say … since the news is basically on everywhere we go,” the Texas mom and MommyPoints.com writer said. “I would hate to bring her anxiety about flying unnecessarily.”
The mystery surrounding the March 8 disappearance of the passenger jet seems to deepen every day, and even parents who aren’t travel bloggers are grappling with how to explain this head-scratching and worrisome event to their children.
It’s an “unfolding story,” said psychologist Josh Klapow, an Associate Professor of the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. “This contributes to more coverage, inconsistencies and confusion for children.”
Psychologists say that what makes the situation particularly challenging is that we have so few answers to give.
“We don’t know what happened, which is more scary,” said Wendy James, a psychologist in Dallas. “Hopefully it won’t be much longer that we don’t have an understanding of it.”
For now though, James and other experts say there are steps you can take to reassure your kids, whether they’re about to set foot on a plane or not.
1. Turn Off the TV (or the Computer or the Radio)
The coverage of the missing plane has been relentless, but your children’s exposure to it doesn’t have to be.
“We become more fearful because we hear a story over and over again,” James said.
2. Know What Age to Engage
Children as young as 5 or 6 may still be happily oblivious to the news. If they aren’t and ask you questions, James said you can simply tell them that they’re safe and comfort them with hugs and extra bedtime stories.
“When they’re really little, they don’t understand danger. They’re a little bit too young to talk about it.”
3. Raise the Subject At a Convenient Moment
If you’re the one raising the issue, make sure you’re not doing it while rushing out the door or some other inconvenient time.
“Bring the subject up at a time when the child and the parent have time for a conversation,” said psychologist Kristen Race, the author of Mindful Parenting. “I also think avoiding having this conversation around non-family members — for instance, during carpool — is a good idea.”
4. Don’t Pretend to Have All the Answers
Older children and teens will want more details, but since we don’t have them, there’s no reason to fake it.
“Parents need to play a role in refraining from making assumptions, avoiding rumors, and simply speaking to what is known,” Race said. “When kids feel as though parents are hiding information from them, it can trigger stress and anxiety.”
“The reality is that we know very little at this point in time. We know the plane has disappeared, we know there is some human intervention in the disappearance, but outside of that, we do not know much. This is important for parents to own up to — they need not feel the burden of being the expert on this topic.”
5. Comfort Them With What You Do Know
Plane accidents, disappearances, etc. are rare. Stress that.
“Air travel remains an incredibly safe way to travel. I think driving this point home is vital, for kids of any age — as kids often need to be reminded of this statistic,” Race said.
If your child is about to board a domestic flight, it might help to emphasize that the Malaysian Airlines disappearance happened far away, added James.
6. Ask Them to Share Their Feelings
Sometimes just being given a chance to voice his or her fears can go a long way toward helping a child feel better.
“Parents should ask the kids what about this concerns them, and again, respond with honesty and transparency,” Race said. “Rephrase your child’s concerns back to them to insure that you fully understand them. When kids feel that they have been heard and understood by their parents, it can provide comfort, even if we don’t have all of the answers.”
Praise them for sharing, suggested California-based psychotherapist Fran Walfish, the author of The Self-Aware Parent.
“Expressing worries is healthy, and you want him to know you are the type of parent who will always be there to listen,” she said.
But don’t be surprised if your children ask you the same questions over and over again.
“They may take longer to process what is happening,” said Klapow.
7. Stay Calm
If you do happen to have the TV on and a Malaysia Airlines news story flashes on the screen, keep your emotions in check.
“How you respond to this will have a big impact on your children,” said Klapow. “Remain calm in front of them. Children need to have the sense they are going to be OK.”
Have you talked to your children about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight? What did you say?
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