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Over the weekend I communicated some thoughts to a person working on a story about what to say to kids regarding the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. I don’t know if they will use what I told them or not, but I thought it was time to address this very sad situation here. Update: I see that the story is now up on Babble and includes some good suggestions from a variety of sources. I haven’t written about MH 370 on this site until now because my airline and aviation knowledge does not stretch to most topics remotely useful when discussing the disappearance and subsequent search for this plane. It hurts my heart to think of the crew, passengers, and their loved ones who are stuck in what must me an incomprehensible Hellish limbo, but I don’t have much to add to the discussion that you can’t easily find on any one of the multitude of news outlets that have devoted significant coverage to this event.
However, I have had to absolutely think through the issue of how to talk about this story to kids. We were actually boarding a flight with our daughter last Friday as the news first started to come out that contact with the flight had been lost, and we have already flown with her again since then. Of course we have also had to deal with the almost non-stop coverage on the news stations in the past 12 days as well. I do have a background working with kids, and am still a licensed social worker, but this advice isn’t really coming from a place of being any sort of professional. It is coming from the place of being a mom who travels a lot with her very observant young daughter. Obviously you should address the issue with your own kids in the manner that you think suits them best.
Limit Their Exposure to the News:
I remember back around the time of 9/11 and way before I was a mom, I heard the advice to limit children’s exposure to the event on TV. Some kids don’t necessarily understand reporting for days on end about the same event, and may view seeing and hearing things about the same story as there being lots of different issues with planes day after day. This airline event is obviously very unique because it is still being talked about so much almost two weeks later since the plane is still missing. I personally don’t think that any good comes from young children being exposed for days on end to talk about airline hijacking, potential crashes, loss of radar signals, searching the bottom of the ocean, and alien abductions. I certainly understand why Malaysia 370 is such a focus of the news, and it rightfully should be, but that doesn’t mean that young kids need to see nonstop coverage of these events.
Answer Questions Honestly, but Strategically:
Even if you limit exposure, it is quite possible (or even likely) that your kids will catch some glimpse of this story. We barely watch the news at our house, but this topic has still come up some in passing between my husband and myself, so it would not surprise me in the slightest if my observant four year old has an idea that this has occurred. It just so happens it hasn’t yet been something she has brought up or asked about. We have talked about it in a calm and matter of fact manner, so she hasn’t picked up on us being upset (as far as I can tell). However, if she did ask about it my take would be to answer her questions honestly, but with as little detail as she needs. For example, if she asked a general question about if something happened to an airplane I would give her a general answer that yes there has been an issue with one of the many airplanes that flies around the world. I won’t go into a a “News at 10” detailed update on everything that is known (and not known). The more detailed her question(s), the more detailed the answer(s). There is no upside in giving her more information than she requests.
Offer Reassurance and Emphasize Rarity:
If you do discuss some of the more tragic details and possible outcomes of this or any other aviation incident with your kids, then be sure to offer reassurance to your tiny travelers that this is very rare. Even though you are statistically at greater risk of a car accident than a plane incident, that is one potential comparison kids might understand. You could say something like “You know how some times cars have accidents, but most the time cars are really safe? Well, planes are the same way. Most planes fly just fine, but every now and then there is one that has a problem.” However you describe it, emphasize that the overwhelming majority of flights are totally safe.
Bring it Back to an Actionable Item:
When describing that most planes are safe, but that every now and then one has a problem, it is a perfect time to remind your son or daughter that this is the reason we wear seat belts or sit in car seats on planes. I would explain that even if the plane has a problem, you are the safest if you are snugly buckled into your seat. Obviously in the rarest of plane incidents even that won’t keep you safe, but there are still tons of examples of more minor plane incidents that a seat belt could make a world of difference. Either way, it is an actionable item that kids have control over.
My thoughts are very much with everyone involved with Malaysia 370, both directly and indirectly. Even as adults who know this sort of things is exceedingly rare, it does make our stomachs drop knowing it could well be any one of us or our friends that was on that plane. Not knowing what has happened to the 239 moms, dads, daughters, sons, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends that were on board is unsettling and stomach turning to say the least. Safe flying, and best wishes to anyone trying to reassure their traveling little ones. If you have some tips on how you have handled this or similar explanations to your young kids please feel free to share.