What should my child know about plane crashes?

It's hard to protect our children from the reality of plane crashes and other disasters.

Story highlights

  • With parents locked on news, young kids might learn about disasters like plane crashes
  • Psychologist: The younger the children, the less they need to know about disasters
  • Parents should answer questions with brief, reassuring answers

I didn't expect my 5-year-old daughter to first learn about airplane crashes while we were in the air.

Chatting about cousins, koalas and snacks at the start of our four-hour flight from San Diego to Atlanta on July 7, she turned to our seatmate's television and was transfixed by images of the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport.

"There's a plane crash," our seatmate said to us.

"Don't look," I told her, immediately turning her head to me before I knew what I was doing. "Do you want to watch the iPad mini?"

Unlimited access to "Super Why!" and "Yo Gabba Gabba!"? Of course she said yes, so I gave her the tablet and headphones to block her eyes and ears from whatever news was coming next.

I took those steps without thinking, somehow believing subconsciously that she doesn't need to know that planes can crash. Not yet.

Saturday's crash confirms that adults need to pay attention to the safety procedures at the start of every flight -- I knew that we needed to buckle up and locate the exits, and that I would need to put my oxygen mask on before adjusting hers. But she doesn't need to know that yet, either.

I considered asking my seatmate to change the channel, but TVs at every seat made the news nearly impossible to ignore. Even a mother with a toddler in her lap behind me started watching the coverage and discussing the crash with her seatmate.

Besides, my tablet strategy seemed to be working.

Diverting her attention from the crash footage turned out to be the right thing to do, according to Yale Parenting Center director Alan Kazdin, a psychology professor and author of "The Everyday Parenting Toolkit."

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Shock and survival: Plane crash through the eyes of children

Disaster coverage can cause anxiety

A "tough love" strategy of letting young children watch plane crashes and other disasters isn't the way to develop kids into confident and independent teenagers and adults who can put bad news into perspective, Kazdin says.

When our children are watching television programs, certain neurons in their brains are firing, Kazdin says. The brain is actually unable to tell the difference between acting on a behavior and merely observing it.

"That's why when a child is watching a cartoon character hitting someone on the head, it's no surprise a kid will hit someone on the head," he says. The brain has already practiced that move.

If they see Asiana Flight 214 crashing and being evacuated, they can easily think it will happen to them.

Some children (and even adults) are naturally more anxious and are more likely to develop anxiety disorders with exposure to disastrous events, he says. Knowing your child's temperament can help inform how much a parent should share.

That's why Kazdin advocates a "kangaroo in a pouch" model of cuddling, loving and sheltering little ones as much as possible until they're old enough to put such disasters in context, often by their teenage years.

Will your kid hear it elsewhere?

That doesn't mean you don't tell your kids anything, Kazdin says. By the time children are in day care or school, parents can't always protect them from the bad news of the world -- especially if they're around other children whose parents let them watch the news.

In that case, New York University Child Study Center psychologist Adam Douglass Brown recommends that parents communicate just enough information to inoculate them from whatever they hear on the playground.

Ideally, parents will hear the bad news first and have their own reactions away from their kids, says Brown, also a clinical professor at NYU Langone Medical Center.

"By the time they talk to their kids, they can do it in a calm way," he says.

It's OK to show some emotion when you react to difficult news -- emotion is a good thing -- but you want to convey that your children are still safe.

"The trick is to communicate safety and reassurance to your kids so they know you can handle it," he says. "How parents handle something is going to be how their children will learn to regulate their own emotions.

"Kids who come from a background where things are talked about calmly and openly are going to be much better off. Even if they hear things on the playground, knowing they can come home and ask questions is going to make them a lot less anxious."

Say just enough, not more

Parents often think they need to give kids lots of information about difficult topics, whether it's a disaster or how babies are made. "Answer any questions the child has, but if your child asks a two-word question, give a two-word answer," Kazdin says.

Your child will let you know how much information he or she is ready to handle, Brown says.

"Say just enough so they're satisfied ... something like 'A plane crash happened and some people were hurt, but they're getting help,'" he says. "Be prepared to say more but take a cue from your kid."

When my daughter asked about it one day after the plane crash, that's how her other mom ended up addressing the issue. She made it clear that planes rarely crash and that the people who were hurt on the airplane were getting help. (She made no mention of the two teenagers who died that day.)

My child's response: "Maybe the pilot should go back to school to practice more." And then she was off to camp for another day of fun.