How to Talk to Kids About Missing Flight MH370

Angela Haupt
March 19, 2014

For nearly two weeks, we've been captivated by the baffling disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. How could a Boeing 777 jetliner -- a plane that weighed 223.5 tons at takeoff, with 239 people aboard -- seemingly vanish without a trace?

It's confusing for anyone to make sense of, least not our youngest counterparts. Consider that 26 countries are now searching for MH370, and yet we have no idea what happened to it. A massive airplane -- lost. Scenarios and theories abound, all unproven and many sinister in nature.

"That's enough to make us all nervous," says Josh Klaplow, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "If the plane simply crashed, that would be a tragedy -- but a different kind of tragedy. The emotion here is not grief and mourning, and that's the hardest thing. The emotion here is uncertainty, and that's more distressing for humans than grief."

In an interview with U.S. News, Klaplow explained how to discuss the "worldwide mystery" with kids. His responses have been edited.

How are kids reacting to the MH370 saga?

It's not uncommon for children to have nightmares and become fixated on the event happening around them, and to become nervous or anxious.

When you think about disaster and its psychological impact, the degree to which it affects you has to do with the relevance of the event to you. That could be geographical -- it happened in your city or state. Or it could be interpersonal and sociological. If you're about to take an airplane flight or you go on planes frequently, there's personal relevance, even though this happened near Malaysia. Kids having a hard time with this are likely either going to travel on an airplane soon, or they've had bad experiences in the past, like a lot of turbulence.

The broader issue is that kids are struggling to understand: How can people just disappear? It starts pulling at some very basic primary human fears. Is the world safe?

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What's the best way for parents to broach the subject with their kids? Should they be watching the news?

It varies by age, maturity and their ability to grasp this story. There's no resolution, which brings more coverage, inconsistencies and confusion for children.

As a parent, you can filter and shield. You really need to monitor what your kids are reading, watching or listening to since it can have a profound impact on their emotions. If you're watching the news and your child, who's under 10, is in the room, be prepared to turn it off. And children under 12 shouldn't be watching the news alone.

Let's say you have the news on, and your child happens to be in the room. What ends up happening is that your child may or may not say anything and is taking it all in -- and you don't know how they're interpreting it. If your kid sees these stories, reassure him that you'll do whatever you can to keep him safe.

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You advocate that parents not be afraid to talk to their kids about it -- and to ask them about their concerns. Why?

This is an unexplainable story, because we don't have an explanation for it. The smartest thing you can do if your child brings it up is ask some general questions. What do they understand about it? What do they think is going on? What have they heard? Regardless of age, you're not going to get a much better indication of what your child knows and is concerned about. Because a lot of times, what's concerning to you might not be concerning to them. And your next question is: How does this make you feel?

I need to emphasize, though: This is not interrogating your child. If he's not bringing it up, and it doesn't seem to be an issue, I'd leave it alone. But if they do, don't try to explain an unexplainable story.

How do you tackle concerns about ever stepping foot on an airplane again?

Your kid might ask you what happened to the plane, and the answer is: Well, we don't know. But there are countries, including ours, working together to figure that out. And what happened to the people? We don't know, but everybody is searching for them.

What's probably going to trip you up as a parent is when your kid asks: Is this going to happen to me? When I get on a plane to see grandma, is it going to disappear? Some parents will say you need to be completely honest and say, "I don't know. It might." But my take is to explain the likelihood of good things vs. bad things happening. Planes don't disappear; this one did, but it's something that almost never happens. You're not lying in any way, but you're not providing information beyond their grasp.

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As a parent, why is it important to pay attention to your own emotions?

Regardless of your child's age, he lives with you. And children are emotional sponges. They soak in your emotions regardless of the setting and situation. So, the content of your words might not be as impactful as your demeanor or emotions. If you're having a conversation -- "Oh my gosh, I can't believe there are 26 countries involved, and we can't find this plane" -- the concern, anxiety and stress in your voice is obvious. A 14-year-old might fully grasp what you're saying, and a 6-year-old might have no idea what you're saying -- but he can absolutely tell that mommy or daddy is upset about something. And our children feed off our emotions.

Do an emotional gut check: If this is upsetting for you, that's OK. But recognize that your children will pick up on your levels of anxiety, even when the conversation is over. If you're nervous and anxious about this, discuss it with other adults, discuss it with clergy. But your kids shouldn't be a sounding board.