What to Say To Kids About Malaysia Flight 370 Or Other Airline Incidents

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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.

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  1. I’d suggest you deal with it the same way you deal with news of the 35000 people killed in automobiles every year, or the 15000 people killed by guns. Oh right – nobody even talks about that.

    MH370 is statistical noise from a risk perspective. If anything you should say that it’s absolutely nothing to worry about because it’ll never happen again.

  2. “I certainly understand why Malaysia 370 is such a focus of the news, and it rightfully should be…”

    I disagree with you, Summer, vehemently.

    While it’s certainly an interesting story, there are very few developments to report on, so the news is mostly falling back on speculation.

    More importantly, focusing so much on *this incident* means that other events are *NOT* covered. As always, there’s a lot happening in our world. Balanced coverage is important.

    I’m honestly surprised you’d be accepting of such coverage. It’s one thing to understand why coverage is like this, and quite another to say that it *should be* this way.

  3. @rob: I completely understand where you’re coming from about statistics, but you’re forgetting a few key elements: car wrecks are much more easily survived than plane crashes. The percentage of a person’s life spent in a car versus spent in a plane is exponentially higher for the vast majority of people. Further, car accidents (and the unfortunate and subsequent deaths) are much more common place, hence MH370’s disappearance being a media circus. While flying is *statistically* safer, perhaps, news of an incident is much more jarring because of the rarity. You’re pseudo-science/math fails on this one. Sorry.

    As for the suggestions above, keeping the kids away from the news is not a particularly easy thing to do, so why not just be honest with them and ignore all the other lame courses of action? It’s really not that hard to just say, “Honey, you know how car wrecks happen sometimes? Well, think of a plane as a big car in the sky. There’s lots of moving parts and while many skilled people on the ground work very hard to make sure everything is safe, sometimes things happen that nobody can control. If there was an accident, very smart people who have spent years investigating will find out why and make sure future flights are safe and learn from the event. These occurrences are very rare, and flying is incredibly safe. Let’s just hope that they find the plane and everyone’s safe and sound.”

  4. Rob, I agree it is very rare, but I would not be comfortable telling my kid a plane incident would never occur again, because that isn’t likely to be the case. The details will be different, but it isn’t the details that typically matter to the kids.
    James, well this is coming from someone who admittedly doesn’t watch much news on TV. However, if there are still 239 people missing then I think it continues to deserve coverage at least until they are found. Certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t other very important stories, or that it needs to be on 24/7, but that does seem to be something important to me….but then again I long since passed my threshold for constant media watching.
    Adam, your description of what to say at the end is pretty much in line with that I would say.

  5. I’m sorta confused why this is a topic of conversation for kids in the first place. There really is no good reason.

  6. @adam:

    Unsure what you mean by “you’re pseudo science/math”.

    30K+ people die in car accidents every year. That’s just the data. On average zero people per year die in plane crashes.

    That isn’t pseudo science or math – that’s just the way it is. The chance of an individual adult or child dying in an airplane related injury is small enough that you could comfortably say to a child that it’ll never happen to them and be sure that you’re telling them the truth to the degree they can understand it.

  7. What to tell kids? That everyone dies and to ignore the hyped nonsense about a few hundred people and instead be more concerned about the millions a year who starve to death because so many first world parents seem more concerned about getting “free” flights in first class and room upgrades?

  8. @Paul:

    Most of the people dying of hunger in the world do so because their governments either interfere with aid or the countries have incredibly bad infrastructure.

    Whether “first world” (which probably doesn’t mean what you think it does) people play hotel and airplane games really doesn’t influence hungry people in undeveloped parts of the world.

  9. My child has somehow developed an obsession and fear with tornadoes. I don’t know where this happened, but probably the news and it predated the latest horrific tornadoes of last spring. Since we totally don’t live in tornado territory I tell her that we don’t get those in the mountains so we’re good. However, mudslides and earthquakes or St. Helen’s blowing up again could befall us. Our time here is temporary. With that said, I think reassuring kids that it isn’t normal and planes are generally safe and turning off the t.v. would be the best solution.

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