It feels impossible to avoid bad headlines and news clips these days. As hard as it is to process all the negative things happening in the world as an adult, it’s even more challenging for children. That’s where parents come in.
“Children look to their parents to help them make sense of the world around them,” said Jonathan Comer, a psychology professor with Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families and director of the Network for Enhancing Wellness in Disaster-Affected Youth. “When bad things happen, kids take their cues from their parents, and they look to us as models to help them gauge how they should process or cope with difficult information.”
Talking to children about the news is an important way to educate them, normalize feelings, help them feel safe and inspire them to take positive action.
“Discussing difficult national and world events often provides key opportunities for parents to reaffirm family values with their children,” Comer noted. “Many difficult events create tangible opportunities to discuss important societal issues that transcend individual events ― such as inequality, resource insecurity, discrimination and injustice.”
But do kids need to know about every single flood, shooting, political uprising or other type of upsetting event? Below, Comer and other experts offer their advice for determining when to talk to children about bad news stories and how to approach the conversation in a productive way.
If it’s big enough or affects everyday life, definitely talk about it.
Many global, national or local news events are unavoidable topics, so parents should be the first source for their children to hear about these things and help them digest what is happening.
“There are major news events like a global pandemic that are going to have an effect on a child’s life either way ― or there are things like the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd that might be talked about at a young age in school, on the playground or on social media,” said Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute. “When something is happening and not being talked about at home, it creates more uncertainty and anxiety for kids because they are attuned and know something is going on but we’re not talking about it.”
Because parents know their children best, they’re the optimal sources for sharing this kind of information, setting the context and discussing the emotions involved in processing it.
“Child-to-child news sharing is often filled with misunderstandings, rumors and large gaps in the real, essential information. There is far more control when discussions are held at home,” said Craig Knippenberg, a therapist and author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions to Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.”
Kids may also overhear adults talking about something or see a glimpse on TV, which can also lead to incomplete information and incorrect assumptions. Parents need to get ahead of that to avoid psychological repercussions.
Comer used an example from his research to highlight this point.
“In our research following the Boston Marathon bombing and manhunt, Boston children whose parents avoided discussing the events with their kids showed more psychological difficulties in the following months than did children whose parents did discuss the events with their kids,” he said.
“Parents may be tempted to avoid discussing difficult world events in an effort to not upset their children,” Comer added. “But avoiding these topics also communicates to children that difficult events are ‘too big’ or ‘too scary’ or ‘too dangerous’ to even talk about.”
Discuss events related to the values and lessons you want your child to learn.
Even if an event isn’t getting as much coverage or directly affecting your family’s day-to-day life, there are other reasons to talk about it with your children.
“If a given event has a realistic impact on their safety, or if it is emblematic of ongoing issues that can impact a child’s safety, it’s important to discuss the event,” Comer said. “If a given event has moral repercussions and implications for how the child should strive to treat others, it’s probably an important event to discuss.”
For these situations, parents can talk to their children about what’s happening, why they think it’s important to pay attention to it and how it relates to their family values. There are lots of books and resources online to help foster age-appropriate conversations about different types of news events with kids. Parents can supplement the discussions with educational activities or journaling time. Even if the topic feels niche, it may provide a powerful learning opportunity.
“Children also need to know about the realities of their world ― a world that is less than perfect and has very real threats,” Comer added. “Typically, the best person to walk them through that is their parents.”
Sometimes, it’s OK not to share.
“Consuming all of the information and feeling like you have to check where was the latest disaster without providing some room to breathe can actually cause more stress and anxiety,” Domingues said. “It’s like you’re carrying this backpack of information around at this time, and you have to put it down. The same goes for what information you’re telling your children about. Sometimes you have to disengage or discuss events more broadly without going into every individual situation.”
The decision of whether to tell your child about a bad news event should be based on a number of factors. Age and temperament are big ones.
“Preschool children have far fewer cognitive and emotional abilities for understanding unprecedented and upsetting world events compared with third or fourth graders,” Knippenberg explained. “You also want to consider your child’s unique temperament. Anxious children can get easily overwhelmed by such news and will have a hard time shutting down or compartmentalizing their thoughts and emotions when it’s time to do schoolwork or play.”
Another important factor is the amount and type of information communicated in the environments your child frequents.
“Think about what the likelihood is that your child will hear about the event at school,” Knippenberg suggested. “You have to remember that news trickles down from older students and older siblings at home. While you can shield a single child at home, you can’t control what’s discussed at school.”
Again, younger children are less likely to hear about news events at school, but once they’ve reached the 9-11 age range, smartphones and the social media might be in the picture. Thus, the communication channels increase.
“If you’re unsure, find out if they know by checking in subtly,” suggested Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst and author of “Winnie & Her Worries.” “Ask, ‘Anything new that you learned about at school related to the news?’ or, ‘Tell me what is happening in the world,’ instead of overdivulging yourself.”
Be strategic about timing.
If you decide to talk to your child about something bad happening in the news, be strategic about the timing of the conversation.
“It’s important to be thoughtful in considering when to discuss difficult national or world events with a child,” Comer said. “Make sure there is ample time to discuss questions they may have, or to talk through their concerns with them.”
He noted that it is not advisable to have these conversations right before bedtime or as they’re on their way out the door to go to school or hang out with friends. He also recommended that parents avoid discussing difficult events while they’re feeling extremely overwhelmed themselves.
“It is often helpful for parents to let their children know that they themselves are deeply troubled by a difficult world event,” Comer said. “Depending on the situation, it’s often fine to cry. But if a parent cannot get through a sentence without sobbing, yelling or displaying uncontrollable emotion, it’s probably not the right time to have the conversation.”
Check in with yourself and take the time to process your feelings before talking to your children. You’ll set the emotional tone for the conversation.
Tailor the conversation to your child’s developmental level.
Parents should take their children’s age and developmental level into consideration when determining how to talk to them about news events and which specific aspects to share.
“Difficult events are typically highly complex and contain nuances, subtleties and competing perspectives that are far beyond younger children’s capacity to comprehend,” Comer said. “When working with younger children, parents will want to be somewhat brief and concrete. They should start by asking the child what, if anything, they may have already heard. Follow their lead.”
Use simple language with young children to give them a sense of what’s happening and then ask if they have any questions. Be sure to check in with them afterward.
“With older children, parents want to teach their children to be prepared, not panicked. How can they take actions to protect themselves?” Comer said, adding that it’s also productive and healing for families to brainstorm ways to help those affected by the news.
“For younger children, this may be writing thank-you cards to the heroes of a difficult situation,” he noted. “With older children and adolescents, being a part of the solution may entail donations, volunteer work, raising awareness, and committing to learning more.”
Whatever their age, it’s best to avoid sharing particularly gruesome or graphic details. Just convey honest, developmentally appropriate information and pay attention to their responses.
Limit media exposure.
“To whatever extent possible, avoid exposing children to excessive media coverage of difficult world events,” Comer said. “Research finds that excessive exposure to disasters and other difficult new events is associated with significant mental health problems in children. Such coverage can be overly dramatic and unnecessarily alarming. And wall-to-wall coverage of an event rarely offers any new information, beyond what can be learned in the first minute of coverage.”
Parents should also pay attention to their children’s exposure to social media posts about news events and other online coverage, which can include more graphic accounts and a lot of misinformation. Major events can offer the opportunity to teach kids media literacy as well.
“Encourage them to gain their news from mainstream resources versus social media,” Knippenberg advised.
Ultimately, parents can emphasize that they are trusted sources for the news of the world and can offer factual information, as well as a sense of safety and security in difficult times. Even if you don’t have all the answers, it’s OK to say “I don’t know” and then look up the facts together with your child.
“Fear and anxiety come from the unknown,” said clinical psychologist and “Anxiety’s a B!tch” podcast host John Mayer. “With all the sources of news floating into our kids’ heads confusing them and making them more fearful, having a reliable source that can be trusted for the facts helps young people cut through all the noise they hear otherwise.”
Be open and reassuring.
“Parents should listen while comforting,” Patel said. “Children might be afraid or ask if this will happen to them. Help them cope with their worries and them feel in control of these situations. Put it all in context for them. Explain the big picture, remind your child there is more good than bad in this world, and give examples of the good.”
Patel also suggested making a family action plan to be prepared for similar situations and finding ways to help people affected by the news. And as always, teach your children to “look for the helpers” ― the people who step up to be of assistance in hard times.
Parents should also encourage their children to share their feelings, help them name their emotions and reassure them that it’s normal and OK to feel that way. Foster a judgment-free zone.
“Always end the discussion of bad news with the strong statements like, ‘Your parents are here to always protect you,’ ‘Our home, community and family is safe,’ or, ‘That’s our primary, fundamental job as parents ― to make you safe!’” Mayer suggested.
“Be assertive and look for opportunities to talk to your children about bad news,” he added. “Your open communication helps soothe them and filters out false information they can get from peers, social media and the internet.”