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Breaking Bad News To Kids: How Media Has Tweaked The Process


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Consider some of the topics that are difficult to explain to children. Now consider what Mr. Rogers would have had to say about them, for instance...


FRED ROGERS: Did you ever know any grownups who got married, and then later they got a divorce? Well, it is something that people can talk about, and it's something important. I know a little girl and a little boy whose mother and father got a divorce, and those children cried and cried. Do you know why? Well, one reason was that they thought it was all their fault. But of course it wasn't their fault.

DONVAN: Oh I miss that guy. That was years ago. So it shows us that the idea of TV being there to take on tough topics has a good, long track record to it. What's changed perhaps are the kinds of tough topics that kids might face today: the Cleveland kidnapping; the Boston Marathon attacks; the shooting in Newtown. For one thing, bad news is traveling faster these days, and for another it seems we just hear more about this kind of bad stuff happening.

But we looked around, and there is in fact a good amount of thinking about this going on already, new understanding about what kids can take in and new tools available to help parents talk to them about it. We're going to be exploring some of that new territory today.

But we want you to help us do it. Parents out there, what was the question or event that you were not ready for when you had to explain it to your child, and what resources were available to help you? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, disciplining drones with Harold Koh. But first Jennifer Powell-Lunder is an adjunct professor of psychology at Pace University and a clinical psychologist who specializes in work with young adults and their families. She joins us from a studio in Fishkill, New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Jennifer.


DONVAN: So Jennifer, you're wise about the culture and trends, and you are working with kids day to day. What do you think in the big picture has changed in the media in the sense that I've been talking about? I made the leap from Fred Rogers talking about divorce 20 years ago to a world now where television is sending kids one kind of scary image after the other. Is it just more of the same, or is there anything different?

POWELL-LUNDER: You know, it's really that there is far more access than there ever was before. There are more choices. There are different mediums. We have cable; we have Internet. And it makes it a lot harder for parents to monitor what it is that their kids are engaging with and what they're seeing. So that's a big part of the picture.

DONVAN: And another difference, and this is your area of specialty, is really there's much more understanding now of where kids are developmentally and in what they can take in and how they process it. And, you know, let's just take an example, something like the Boston bombings. Say an eight-year-old hears about it. Say an 18-year-old hears about. What's the difference in the way that they would process that news?

POWELL-LUNDER: Great question. Well, the difference is this, is an eight-year-old's world is much, much smaller than the world of an 18-year-old. And what I mean by that is that an eight-year-old is invested in the environment around them: their home; their school. They're not at the point where their abstract thinking has really gone beyond that.

Switch to an 18-year-old. An 18-year-old sees himself in a much bigger world. And there are a couple of concepts that become very important as kids grow from tweens to teens. And the first is egocentrism. So what we need to understand is that this is actually brain development, and we now say that adolescents, actually their brains continue to grow until the age of 25. It doesn't end at 18 anymore.

So what we know is this, is that adolescents are egocentric by nature. What does that mean? That means that they see the world as me, me, me, me, me. It doesn't mean that they're selfish, it just means that their natural inclination is not to see things from anybody else's perspective except their own. So they have the ability to use abstract thinking; they just don't naturally do that.

The other concept that's really important is what we call the illusion of invulnerability. And what that translates basically to mean is this, is that bad things happen to other people. So for example, an 18-year-old is driving their car, and they are texting. And we all know that this is a terrible, terrible thing. Their buddy, sitting next to them, who is also 18, says to them hey, dude, you can't do that.

The next day, the friend is driving his car, and a text comes in, and he stops to read it. Now this same teen who told his friend not to do this does the same thing without even a thought. So that's really two very important concepts that we need to be aware of it.

DONVAN: And take me into the head of the eight-year-old who is watching perhaps the Boston bombings coverage.

POWELL-LUNDER: The eight-year-old is seeing life in picture, and the pictures are very, very scary, and that's why for younger viewers it is so important that parents are there to monitor and watch and really sit with them to help explain things because the pictures are coming at them so quickly.

So for example take a show like "Sesame Street," which has many, many different parts to it. They run from sequence to sequence. The reason they do that is that younger brains can focus on sequence to sequence. So if you're showing them sequence to sequence of really horrific things, then that's going to impact them greatly. So it's really important to be there and guide them and talk with them because the way they're going to remember it is in the pictures they've seen.

DONVAN: Well, the ultimate question is what do you say to a child, a young child who's watching something horrific like that unfold on television.

POWELL-LUNDER: Well, I think you really need to strike a balance between making kids too scared about what's going on and also being honest because kids today are savvier in general because of the access to media. So I think what is important to make clear is that they have your support, your guidance and that yes, this happened.

And the most important thing is to field their questions because as parents, what we often do is we want to talk at our kids, not with them. So they walk around with fears that we're not even aware of.

DONVAN: I want to ask you something that perhaps challenges the entire premise of this program. But it occurs to me, and I don't mean this to sound harsh or flip, but growing up, I lived through as a kid, you know, a series of national tragedies, all one after the other: President Kennedy is shot; Martin Luther King is shot; Bobby Kennedy is shot.

And I remember those things being very upsetting. But here I am today, and I consider myself fairly whole. And what I'm sort of getting at is we kind of get over these things, we get over these shocks, or we move on or we digest in one way or another. And I'm sort of trying to understand what the stakes are here. Why this concern on how kids are going to receive the news?

Is it about who they're going to become as adults, or are we focusing on just who they are in the moment, and there's no reason that they should experience distress if there's no reason to - if there's a way to avoid it?

POWELL-LUNDER: You know, great point, and really what it has to do with is exposure. So the events that you mentioned earlier, you would see them on the news, but in today's world, we have so many mediums that kids are bombarded constantly with these pictures. Take 9/11 for example. We saw, you know, the events of 9/11 over and over again.

There wasn't any type of visual media you could turn on where you didn't see it. So the impact, to answer your question, is that the kids are exposed to it far more. So it - there are two worries that we have. One is that it makes people less likely to react, and we see this, believe it or not, with kids who are watching a lot of violent video games and violent television programming.

And this is a very controversial subject, but the truth is that the more you're exposed to certain levels of violence or trauma, you have less of a reaction when something happens. So we want to make sure that our kids are not underreacting, but we want to strike the balance and make sure they're not overreacting in the moment.

DONVAN: I want to ask you also about the times when television, like Fred Rogers did, attempts to be an explainer of difficulty or to touch on the subject. And we're going to be talking in a little while with Linda Ellerbee, who does a whole newscast for kids and has to address these issues.

And so on the entertainment side, there was this past season an episode of "Glee" where in this - near the school a gun went off, and whole building went on lockdown, and the kids were hiding in the choir room. A huge show, popular show, but this was four months after Newtown. Whether it was inspired by it particularly or not doesn't really matter. It's - the timing was really close.

And I just want to know about what your take is on that. Was - you know, is that actually a way to help explore, and again the word digest, these kinds of traumatic incidents?

POWELL-LUNDER: Well, I think that that episode was very well done, and the reason it was well done is because it was real. And kids today are looking for real. And even though it was only four months after, this is the world in which we live. Look, Columbine changed a lot of things for kids in schools, and it was important for kids to be able to watch the empathy, the reactions.

And it could then frame them, frame in their minds, how they might react. And as I said before, they have a tendency to be egocentric by nature. So what it did is allow them to see the perspective of the other teens going through this.

Now that being said, "Glee" says that it's for kids 14 and older, and I think it's important that we're aware of this. So I wouldn't recommend that a younger kid watch this. And also I think it's very important to remember that kids who went through such a trauma, such as the kids in Newtown themselves, and I actually happen to be involved in that community, I live quite near there and had some involvement after the tragedy.

So it would not have been a good idea for those kids to be watching this type of programming because it could retraumatize them.

DONVAN: All right, parents, we want to ask you also what the question or events you were not ready for and what resources were available to you to get help. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And I also want to thank Jennifer Powell-Lunder for joining us. She's a clinical psychologist specializing in work with tweens, teens, young adults and their families. And she will not be with us after the break.

So just in the minute before we go to the break, I want to zero in for a sort of personal take on this because you have kids. How do you handle social media yourself with your own kids?

POWELL-LUNDER: Monitoring, and, you know, it's really hard because there's so many different sites out there. So first of all I collect all the passwords. I have passwords to every site. And I talk a lot about this to parents.

DONVAN: How old are the kids?

POWELL-LUNDER: I have - I have both a tween and a teen, so I have a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old. So I'm in the thick of things right now. And I can tell you that first of all there's a very big difference between the 10-year-old and the 13-year-old as far as social network savvy. You know, the 13-year-old's at the point where, you know, she's out there, and she knows everything, whereas the - you know, the 10-year-old is not so aware but is aware because he sees what his sister is involved in, and that's the other - you know, you have second child syndrome, which means that your second child is more likely to be involved in these things earlier.

I'm very up front with them. For example when the Newtown situation happened, I did talk to them about it. I wanted them to know it from me and not hear it on the bus.

DONVAN: All right, Jennifer Powell-Lunder, thanks very much for joining us today. And when we come back, Linda Ellerbee on what she has learned about reporting tough topics for kids. So stay with us. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: Linda Ellerbee, a bit of a legend. She is executive producer, writer and anchor of "NickNews" on Nickelodeon and has been on the air for more than 20 years. Ellerbee has reported for "Weekend" and the "NBC Nightly News," as well as "Good Morning America" and joins us now via Skype from her office in New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LINDA ELLERBEE: Thank you. I must correct you. Sadly, I have been on the air more than 40 years. I have been doing "NickNews" for kids 22 years.

DONVAN: Twenty-two.

ELLERBEE: But I'm much older than you thought.


DONVAN: Thanks, thanks - you're very good at breaking bad news. I can see that right there. So very - I don't know if you heard our conversation before, but we're talking...

ELLERBEE: I did, I did.

DONVAN: So you do reports for kids, and the bottom line question here is: How is reporting for kids different from reporting for adults? And is it really different?

ELLERBEE: It's not really different at all. I'm constantly asked, do I dumb it down, do I write down? No, I don't write down for kids. I assume that our viewers are just as smart as I am. They're, you know, younger, and they're shorter and have less experience, but they're not dumb. Now, I should say this: The viewers of NickNews are nine to 14, I'd say with our core audience being nine, 10, 11.

So we're not aiming things at the "Sesame Street" crowd or at the 18-year-old that the psychologist was talking about. We're right there in that tween, early teen area.

DONVAN: Let's go to - we've been asking people to call, we've got a bunch of people lined up, and I'd like to kind of have them have the chance to talk with you and you to hear what they're saying. And I want to bring in Cheryl(ph) from Great Ridge, Colorado. Hi, Cheryl, you are on TALK OF THE NATION.

CHERYL: Hi, thanks for having me.


CHERYL: My son was home when the shuttle blew up. He was sick that day. And we thought, oh, this'll be great. We can watch the shuttle go off. And all of a sudden it became a tragedy. And that really was a defining moment. He still remembers it. He's 36 and he still remembers that today.

And I remember the school was really good. They had psychologists that would talk about it. And one thing we tried to do is not let him keep watching it because like the previous person on was saying that, you know, they think it's happening over and over again when actually it's just a repeat. But I think that's the most important thing.

Now that I have grandkids, I turn the TV off when they're here if it's news hour.

DONVAN: Cheryl, I know it's been a lot of years, but do you remember the language you used? What did you say?

CHERYL: I just said, honey, sometimes bad things happen to good people, and this was a total accident, and you know, we even talked about it in his Sunday school class, and they all wrote letters to the astronauts. It was very touching that they were able to do that because these kids were all traumatized by it because they'd all studied in school the shuttle was going off, and we're going to - and I think the kids at school watched it when he was watching it with me at home, so...

DONVAN: And looking back on how you responded, do you give yourself an A on that?

CHERYL: I think so. I think so.

ELLERBEE: I'd give her A, she absolutely did.

CHERYL: I remember how I felt when Kennedy was shot, when the president was shot. I remember feeling so sad, and - but they never showed - it wasn't - I think the best thing about that for us was they didn't show the shooting over and over again. They just talked about the sad and the funeral. And you saw more things over and over that wasn't the actual violent part like some of the other things that happened, where they can show the actual act happening.

DONVAN: Right, well, Linda Ellerbee is saying nice things about you. So I went to let her do that.

ELLERBEE: She's quite right to tell her child bad things do happen. It's ridiculous to pretend that they don't. As I said earlier, kids are not stupid. And she and the psychologist earlier are both right about the repetition. When we went on the air four days following September 11, 2011, the very first thing I said that day was please remember no matter how many times you have seen video of those planes flying into those buildings, it only happened one time, because the aggregate is so damaging.

And, you know, we in television, I think we have to stand responsible for that. I know if it bleeds, it leads, but it doesn't have to on our show. We, you know, we only show - in fact we never showed it. We never showed the images of those planes flying into the towers, although I got a nasty letter from a man saying how dare we show that, that he would never let his child watch Nickelodeon again, that he had gone in at 9:00 and his four-year-old was sitting there with the remote watching the planes go into the towers.

Well, my questions were: One, we never showed the shot; two, what is your four-year-old doing up at 9:00; and three, what is your four-year-old doing up alone with the television and the remote at 9:00?

DONVAN: Linda Ellerbee, you are clearly saying that there are things that kids should not see, definitely not see over and over again. So I kind of want to see and understand better where you draw the line between, you know, kids should know what's going on but we've got to be careful about what we tell them. It seems to me that might be a tricky line.

ELLERBEE: I think, you know - and you're right. We explain the news. We don't report it at NickNews. And there are a couple of rules that we started out with that I think sort of persevere today. And one of them is that wherever you find bad things happening in this world, if you look, you will always find good people trying to make it better.

Take, for example, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, where most of the images were of children dead and alive being carried out of that building, horrifying images. What we said to kids is try not to remember that. Try to remember the hundreds of people who risked their lives going into that building to save people and the thousands of people who came to Oklahoma City to be doctors and nurses and to help and the millions of people who sent cards or prayed or had good thoughts.

You know, always remember there are more good people than there are bad.

DONVAN: I want to read an email from Mary. She writes: In the late 1980s I saw the rerun of the episode of "Sesame Street" where it is explained to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper had died and was never coming back. Not long after, I attended my first funeral. I was about six or seven, and it was my uncle who had passed away.

I don't recall my parents explaining death to me, but because of that "Sesame Street" episode, I did understand that my uncle was gone forever. It was straightforward, to the point, didn't use metaphors, and as a young child I understood and accepted it. My parents did, however, have to explain embalming because I did ask why my uncle was wearing makeup.


ELLERBEE: Well, you know, you hit on a crucial point here. We like to think that kids live in some happy land where reality never sets foot. If you just stop - let's think of history for a moment, OK, and the idea that ignorance is bliss or even possible. I wasn't ignorant of the Cold War when I was 10, and even at 10 it was very clear to me that when the siren went off, if I climbed under my wooden desk and put my hands over my head, when the Soviet Union dropped the hydrogen bomb on me, it wasn't going to be a lot of help. It just wasn't.

But no one talked to me about it. Now, let's go back a little further. Certainly during World War II kids were aware it was going on. Before that, kids were aware the Depression was going; before that World War I and before that most kids, unless you were wealthy, went to work at age 12.

So kids have never lived in this...

DONVAN: In Candyland, yeah.

ELLERBEE: In Candyland. It's never happened.

DONVAN: Elizabeth Blair is a senior producer on the arts desk right here on NPR and recently did a piece called "How to Introduce Kids to Tough Topics: Art and TV Can Help." It ran last week on MORNING EDITION. And Elizabeth Blair joins us now in Studio 42. Elizabeth, thanks for being here.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

DONVAN: So what in the piece that you did - reported for MORNING EDITION, what surprised you about the kind of media that are out there to address these topics?

BLAIR: There were a few surprises. There were two in particular. One is a children's book on a transgender tiger. It's a very Disneyesque kind of book, and it's about a cub whose father is going to change genders. Another thing that surprised me was a museum in Baltimore that has a very graphic display of slavery. And I know these are two very, very different examples. But there is so much out there that's positive, that's well thought out.

DONVAN: I want to pick up on well thought out. So somebody's thinking about this stuff a lot, it sounds like.

BLAIR: Oh, most definitely. And, you know, as Linda said earlier, it's kind of up to the media to let people know that there are very, very intelligent approaches to how to explain hard subjects to five-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 15-year-olds. But it's finding them I think is probably the trickiest part.

DONVAN: Is there a connection to actually understanding how these kids develop at these ages, what faculties they have that work at a particular age and don't work?

BLAIR: Well, I'm not a psychologist, but I...

DONVAN: But you're a great reporter.

BLAIR: But I'm a great reporter. And Linda, I would love to hear what Linda says about this. I mean I think when I spoke to Linda for my story, I remember she said, you know, when you're - when they're really small children, you don't have to tell them everything. Isn't that right, Linda? Wasn't that your...

ELLERBEE: I said it's OK to lie to your three-year-old. It is. It is.


BLAIR: Yeah.

ELLERBEE: If something like September 11 happens and the whole world is going crazy over it, it is absolutely OK, in my mind, to turn to your three or four-year-old and say, don't worry, honey. Nothing like this is ever going to happen to you. I'll never let it. You're safe.

BLAIR: Right. And I also think sometimes children will let you know whether this is too much information.

ELLERBEE: Oh, yes. Yes, absolutely. When we dealt with the Clinton impeachment some years ago, you know, we had issues to deal with in talking to kids about that. And a friend of mine told me that in driving the car pool, one of the car poolees had said to her, what is oral sex? Because...


ELLERBEE: ...it was an issue in that story.


ELLERBEE: And without thinking, she had said, oral sex is when you talk about it.


BLAIR: That's great.

DONVAN: Let's...

ELLERBEE: Which - the kid didn't ask another question. It satisfied the kid.

BLAIR: Yeah.

ELLERBEE: It wasn't actually a lie, and life went on.

DONVAN: I want to bring in Angela from Louisville, Kentucky. Hi, Angela. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ANGELA: Hello. How are you all?

DONVAN: We're great. Thanks.

ANGELA: My subject, topic of difficulty, was trying to discuss the conversation of sex to my third grader. He was very into the children's television show Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, those shows. And Jamie Lynn Spears, I believe, it was announced that she was pregnant at the time. And...

DONVAN: Mm-hmm. She was a performer, actress on the show, right.

ANGELA: Right. But through social media, information came out that she was also expecting a baby, and my son could not process that information. How could someone who is just a few years older than him be ready to have a baby? Of course he didn't know any of the details of how the process came about, but he couldn't understand that.

And he said, well, mom, there are teenagers that are having babies all the time - or having sex at the time. I said, yes, and they think that they're ready to take that next step, which is a grown-up action. And as a result, this can be one of the things that happened (unintelligible) and I spoke with him about STDs and things of that nature. I was pretty explicit in explaining what could result, whether it's an STD, whether it's - he contracts HIV or AIDS. I went through all the details.

And then I had a brother. My brother and sister-in-law just had a baby, and I asked them to allow him to care for the child, of course with our supervision as much as possible. And he's like, mom, it's a lot of work. I said, exactly. Imagine that being your life, the rest of your life.

DONVAN: Wow. Linda Ellerbee, again, it sounds like an A for this caller. That sounds like you really took advantage of the situation.

ELLERBEE: I think so, although it's possible if he was in the third grade, you may have told him a little more than he was asking. You...

ANGELA: Well, I...

ELLERBEE: It's always hard to judge, you know, what they're asking and what answer will satisfy. I have a grandson in the third grade who asked me this last weekend, what is sex? And again, I didn't want to lie, but I'm a grandmother. I'm allowed to pass things off, not as a journalist, but as a grandmother.

So I said, well, one way to define it is there's a female sex and a male sex. I'm the female sex, and you, Ruben, are male sex, and beyond that I really think you should ask your mother.

BLAIR: Yeah. Can I raise my hand? OK. Sorry.

DONVAN: One second. I just want to say, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News.

BLAIR: Yeah, go ahead. Just that there are some very good books out there, actually, because we did consider talking about our bodies and sexuality and how that can be hard for some parents to talk about or adults in general to talk about to kids.

There's a book called "It's Not the Stork!" which is so well done because there's - it's - there's some animated, some humor. There's a little bee that doesn't, you know, really - is sort of embarrassed easily by things. And it just talks about how a baby is - comes into - comes to be. It has alternative families. It has adoption. And it's not - it's appropriate for six, seven-year-olds because it doesn't get into intercourse and relationships. It's very scientific, actually, and I read it to my own son, and he was fascinated. And...

DONVAN: Wow. But you're telling me it's not the stork?

BLAIR: It's called "It's Not the Stork." I hate to break it to you, but it's not the stork.

DONVAN: Let's go to Sue in St. Louis, Missouri. Hi, Sue. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

SUE: Thanks for your program. The hardest topic I ever had to deal with was with my son, and I had all the books to explain sex and your body changing for my daughters. But for my son, who I always suspected was gay since he was about age four, asked me at age 10, you know, what homosexuality was. And that was in the late 1990s when gay marriage was just becoming into the forefront and a huge controversy.

And so he heard a lot about it on the news, and I protected him from - I mean, he - we never watched Nickelodeon or anything. We just watched PBS and anything. So I thought I'd protected him from things. And - but, you know, they learn the sexual - the sex program in school. He went to a Catholic school at that time, and it was very negative toward homosexuality, and especially any kind of gay marriage was like oh no. So when he asked me that, I absolutely did not know what to say. And...

ELLERBEE: If I may interrupt for a moment, that was a very difficult situation for you. But you know, fag is the most common hate word on America's school playgrounds.

SUE: Right, mm-hmm. And he heard that a lot, you know?

ELLERBEE: Yes, and it had to hurt him. And yet so many of us as grown-ups want to stick our heads in the sand on this particular subject.

DONVAN: Elizabeth Blair, what would your advice - I mean is there something that Sue could turn to?

BLAIR: My advice would be to listen to what Linda Ellerbee says. I mean she has done shows on this that are really wonderfully done. So I think exactly what's she saying.

SUE: Well, you know, I guess I followed my mother's instinct, and I'm not even sure he knew that he was gay at that point. You know, I don't - I've asked him when he thought he knew that, and he said maybe in high school. But maybe subconsciously he knew that he was different, right, somehow. And so I just told him, you know, if two love each other, it's OK if they marry, and they have the right to do that.

BLAIR: And there are books, I mean there are books. There's a publishing company called My Family, and it's all about non-traditional families, and it's as if they are like every other family.

DONVAN: Well, I have to break this off because we're at the end of our time. But I want to thank everybody who took part in this conversation, Sue, particularly you. That was gutsy to come on and talk about that. Linda Ellerbee, thanks for everything you've done for these - these 40 years. And...


DONVAN: ...Elizabeth Blair, you're senior producer on the arts desk here at NPR. Your piece "How to Introduce Kids to Tough Topics? Art and TV Can Help" ran last week on MORNING EDITION and can be found at npr.org. And if nothing else, we've learned that in addition to the media being able to help parents with a lot of these challenges, the parents we heard today seem to be pretty good at it themselves. This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.