parents talking to kids

Mighty Blog

Talking to kids about tragedies in the news

By: Dr. Gigi Chawla, chief of general pediatrics

Incidents of gun violence and terrorism are hard to understand and process for individuals of all ages, but especially for children. While years ago it may have been easier for kids to avoid news stories about tragedies, social media makes those catastrophes accessible and more personal. Therefore, it’s critical for parents to talk with their children about these tragedies and help them process what they’re seeing.

Talking to your kids

It’s important for kids to feel like they can share their feelings, and know that their fears and anxieties are understandable.

Rather than waiting for your kids to approach you, consider starting the conversation. Ask what they understand about these incidents and how they feel about them.

Share your own feelings, too — during a tragedy, kids often look to adults for their reactions. It helps kids to know that they are not alone in feeling anxious or saddened. Knowing that their parents have similar feelings helps kids legitimize their own. At the same time, kids often need parents to help them feel safe.

How kids perceive the news

Of course, you are not your child’s only source of information about shootings or other tragic events that receive media attention. Kids are likely to repeatedly see or hear news stories or graphic images on TV, radio, online, or through secondary sources on social media and such reports can teach them to view the world as a confusing, threatening, or unfriendly place.

Unlike movies or entertainment programs, news is real. But depending on a child’s age or maturity level, he or she may not yet understand the distinctions between fact and fantasy. By the time kids reach 7 or 8 years old, however, what they watch on TV can seem all too real.

For some kids, the vividness of a sensational news story can be internalized and transformed into something that might happen to them. A child watching a news story about a shooting might worry, “Could I be next? Could that happen to me?”

TV has the effect of shrinking the world and bringing it into our living rooms. By concentrating on violent stories, TV news can also promote a “mean-world” syndrome that can give kids a misrepresentation of what the world and society are actually like.

Discussing the news

To calm fears about the news, parents should be prepared to deliver calm, unequivocal, but limited information. This means delivering the truth, but in a way that fits the emotional level of your child. The key is to be truthful, but not go into more detail than your child is interested in or can handle.

Although it’s true that some things can’t be controlled, parents should still give kids the space to share their fears or other emotions. Encourage them to talk openly about what scares them.

Older kids are less likely to accept an explanation at face value. Their budding skepticism about the news and how it’s produced and sold might hide fears they have about the stories covered. If an older child is bothered about a story, help him or her process their understanding. An adult’s willingness to listen will send a powerful message.

Tips for parents

  • Know which sources your kids turn to for news and information, whether they’re watching TV or online through social media.
  • Recognize that news doesn’t have to be driven by disturbing pictures. Public television programs, newspapers, or news magazines specifically designed for kids can be less sensational — and less upsetting — ways for them to get information.
  • Discuss current events with your kids on a regular basis. It’s important to help them think through stories they hear about. Ask questions: What do you think about these events? How do you think these things happen? Such questions also encourage conversation about non-news topics.
  • Put news stories in proper context. Showing that certain events are isolated or explaining how one event relates to another helps kids make better sense of what they hear.
  • Watch the news with your kids to filter stories together.
  • Anticipate when guidance will be necessary and avoid shows that aren’t appropriate for your child’s age or level of development.
  • If you’re uncomfortable with the content of the news or it’s inappropriate for your child’s age, turn it off.
  • Recognize some internalizing signs and symptoms of anxiety or sadness that your child may be experiencing such as sleep disturbance, emotional liability, poor appetite, or new separation anxiety. Talk about those with your child and reach out to your child’s health care clinician if symptoms persist or you need guidance.
Gigi Chawla, MD
Rachel Patterson