How parents can help kids process scary news, according to experts

Experts say there are ways that parents can discuss sensitive news events with their kids without causing anxiety. (Photo: Getty Images)
Experts say there are ways that parents can discuss sensitive news events with their kids without causing anxiety. (Photo: Getty Images)

Whether it’s the most recent school shooting, the pandemic, a natural disaster, an ongoing war or climate change, there's a lot of heavy news on a daily basis on TV and social media, which can be scary and overwhelming for kids and adolescents.

But experts say that parents can take steps to help kids process and discuss sensitive news topics in an age-appropriate way, without causing anxiety or affecting their sense of safety. Here's how.

Start from a calm place

"First, make sure you are in an emotionally sound place," Jessica Yellin, former chief White House correspondent for CNN and founder of News Not Noise, tells Yahoo Life. "If you are panicked or overly anxious, your kids will pick that up and it's not productive. It's OK to be emotional — let them know you're sad but they're safe, and remind them what you all do to ensure your child is safe."

Jacqueline Toner, psychologist and author of What To Do When the News Scares You, agrees, pointing out that there's an important difference between parents sharing that they feel sad versus scared. "If your child is older, it can be OK to share that you have worries, too, but be sure to discuss things that mitigate those worries," says Toner. "For young children, however, hearing that Mom or Dad is scared is scary."

Find out what kids already know

A first rule of thumb: Assess what your child has heard or seen "before launching into explanations or expressions of comfort," suggests Toner. "You may find that a child's worries differ from what you'd expect. Are they worried about their own safety? The safety of loved ones? A pet? Understanding what a news story means to the child is important in addressing their concerns."

Yellin agrees, saying there are two benefits to first finding out what kids already know: "You don't overshare traumatic information to which they may not already be exposed, and you can focus the conversation on addressing their fears and concerns."

You also don't need to pretend that there are easy answers to heavy, complex topics. "Kids sniff out dishonesty and that makes them more afraid," says Yellin. "But explain with honesty what the challenges are, why this is an issue and what people are doing to try to repair it."

Keep in mind that some children may "misunderstand" news events

Toner explains that children are "more prone" to misinterpreting details of news events than adults and likely need some context from parents. "This can result in specific fears or a general sense of anxiety," Toner says. "Children may view news events as directly threatening to them, even when that is not the case. They may misunderstand how close an event is to where they live or how unlikely they are to have a similar experience."

Current events portrayed on television or the internet often show "the same scenes over and over again, sometimes from different angles," says Toner, which can make it seem that "a past event is still happening." She says: "When a scene fills an entire screen, it can appear far more widespread than it is."

Limit exposure to scary news

This applies to children as well as adults, notes Yellin. "Exposure to too much traumatic material can immobilize you," she says. Instead, focus on the basics rather than going down a rabbit hole. "To ensure you feel engaged and present, learn just enough about the tragedy to be informed, then turn to material about solutions, actions and people making a difference," Yellin says. "In other words, you don't need to learn about the shooter's every step, the graphic stories of the attack."

This is what Yellin does in her own News Not Noise letter, providing only "the most basic information about what happened" and focusing on "useful facts and people pursuing policy solutions — because that's where you can more productively direct your energy," she says. Yellin recommends that parents find resources that do the same — Common Sense Media, for example, has a list of kid-friendly news sources — and "stop reading or watching when you feel overwhelmed."

Reassure kids to help reduce anxiety

Of course, it's impossible to protect children entirely from hearing about news that the entire country or world is focused on, says Toner. To help create a sense of normalcy and safety, she recommends sticking with your usual daily family routines — there is comfort in predictability for kids — and giving children more hugs and attention if they need it.

It also helps to remind them of "all the people who will keep them safe," says Toner. "Don't, however, mention any actions which might add to the sense of danger. In other words, it's great to say that the police are helpers but don't discuss their guns, shooting or bad actors," for example.

Yellin adds that parents should remind their kids that "this event is the news. Their life is what's happening in this space right now, having this conversation, and they are safe."

While reassuring your child, you can also use this as an opportunity to channel any sadness or worry into action. "Helping them to think about ways to express the concern they feel toward those who have been hurt — through letters, help with a clothing drive, etc. — can even serve as a lesson in empathy," Toner says.

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