Dramatic, disturbing news events can leave parents speechless. These age-based tips on how to talk with kids about the news — and listen, too — can help.
Elementary school-age kids and some middle schoolers have trouble fully understanding news events. And though older teens are better able to understand current events, even they face challenges when it comes to sifting fact from opinion — or misinformation.
No matter how old your kids are, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally. Many can feel worried, frightened, angry, or even guilty. And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over. So what can you do as a parent or caregiver to help your kids process all this information?
Addressing News and Current Events: Tips for all kids
Consider your own reactions. Your kids will look to the way you handle the news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will, too.
Take action. Depending on the issue and kids’ ages, families can find ways to help those affected by the news. Kids can write postcards to politicians expressing their opinions; families can attend meetings or protests; kids can help assemble care packages or raise money to donate to a rescue/humanitarian effort. Check out websites that help kids do good.
Tips for kids under 7
Keep the news away. Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half hour. Read the newspaper out of range of young eyes that can be frightened by the pictures (kids may respond strongly to pictures of other kids in jeopardy). Preschool kids don’t need to see or hear about something that will only scare them silly, especially because they can easily confuse facts with fantasies or fears.
Tell them that your family is safe, loved, and valued. At this age, kids are most worried about safety and separation from you. It’s important to help them feel safe and cope with their feelings, even during troubling times. Try not to downplay their concerns and fears. Reassure your kids by explaining all the ways they can find protection and help, like reaching out to family and loved ones. If the news event happened far away, you can mention the distance to comfort them.
For kids who live in communities that experience higher rates of violence, news of tragic events may trigger extra fears. If that happens, share a few age-appropriate tips for staying and feeling safe, such as staying close to a trusted adult, knowing who to contact in case of an emergency, and keeping away from police activity.
Be together. Though it’s important to listen and not belittle their fears, distraction and physical comfort can go a long way. Snuggling up and watching something cheery or doing something fun together may be more effective than logical explanations about probabilities.
Tips for kids age 8–12
Carefully consider your child’s maturity and temperament. Many kids can handle a discussion of threatening events, but if your kids tend toward the sensitive side, be sure to keep them away from the TV news. Repetitive images and stories can make dangers appear greater, more prevalent, and closer to home.
Be available for questions and conversation. At this age, many kids will see the morality of events in stark black-and-white terms and are in the process of developing their moral beliefs. You may have to explain the basics of prejudice, bias, and civil and religious strife. This is a good time to ask them what they know, since they’ll probably have gotten their information from friends, and you may have to correct facts.
Talk about — and filter — news coverage. You might explain that even news programs compete for viewers, which sometimes affects content decisions. If you let your kids use the internet, go online with them. Some of the pictures posted are simply grisly. Monitor where your kids are going, and set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals.
Tips for teens
Check in. Since, in many instances, teens will have absorbed the news independently of you, talking with them can offer great insights into their developing politics and their senses of justice and morality. It will also help you get a sense of what they already know or have learned about the situation from their own social networks. And it will give you the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix (just don’t dismiss theirs, since that will shut down the conversation immediately).
Let teens express themselves. Many teens will feel passionately about events and may even personalize them if someone they know has been directly affected. They’ll also probably be aware that their own lives could be affected by violence. Try to address their concerns without dismissing or minimizing them. If you disagree with media portrayals, explain why so your teens can separate the mediums they get news from and the messages conveyed.
Caroline Knorr, former Common Sense senior parenting editor, and Marie-Louise Mares, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributed to this article.