How to Talk with Kids About Scary or Tragic Events in the News

how to talk to kids about scary news
Find a quiet and comfortable spot to address your child's anxiety or fears about scary and tragic news events. iStockphoto

When a frightening and tragic event such as a school shooting, terrorist attack, or a natural disaster occurs, children may understandably have lots of questions and concerns. In some cases, they may experience some anxiety, and worry that something similar could happen to them or to their loved ones.

As children become older and reach grade-school age, they will naturally be increasingly exposed to more news events.

They may hear about breaking news from friends at school, or overhear something on the playground or on a playdate. Children this age are already more curious about the world at large, and will likely be very interested in a big news event, particularly when the adults around them, including teachers and parents, seem interested in it.

While parents should certainly answer children’s questions and address any of their thoughts, worries, and fears, it’s also important for parents to keep in mind that too much information -- and certainly a steady stream of images and sounds on the TV detailing and examining and re-examining the tragedy -- is not good for kids.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when talking to kids about a tragic event or scary news development:

  • Limit their exposure. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to turn off the TV and radio and not read too much internet news coverage after a tragedy. It’s to be expected that headlines will be blaring with updates on a big news event like a school shooting or a natural disaster, and many of the images and conversations can potentially be graphic or emotionally wrenching. Try to find another family activity -- such as playing a board game or reading a book together -- to take your child’s mind, and your own, off of the news event or at least put it in the background.
  • Try to minimize your own intake of the news coverage. Remember that kids are very good at picking up your stress levels and knowing when you feel anxious. Constant updates on the news can also create stress and anxiety in adults, so parents should be mindful about controlling how much they are tuned in to the news. Check in periodically to scan headlines, either online or on television, when the kids are occupied or asleep.
  • Stick to routines. Another way to minimize stress is to normalize your child's day, says Susan Lipkins, PhD, a psychologist and nationally-recognized expert in Port Washington, NY, who specializes in traumatic issues/events which confront children, tweens and teens. "There's comfort in the routine."
  • Ask first. Before you talk about the news event, gauge what they know -- and what, if any, misconceptions they might have about things they've heard. "Find out everything your child is thinking and feeling," says Dr. Lipkins. "With younger kids, maybe have them draw a picture or have them dictate a story to you."
  • Find a quiet time to talk. You can discuss this event and any other issues and questions your child might have while taking a walk or sitting down in your favorite quiet spot in the house. But take the time to connect while you have your talk, and avoid engaging in other distractions -- such as having the TV on or doing another activity like cooking -- while you have your discussion. Some great times for giving your child a little extra attention are the morning and especially at night, when children decompress, says Dr. Lipkins.
  • Don’t dismiss or minimize your child’s feelings. Your child might worry that someone will come and hurt her. She may worry that you will be killed. Rather than saying she’s being silly or that such things will never happen, help her put things in perspective (say how rare such things would be, and explain how unlikely they are). But be sure to address each concern and say that many children and parents out there have the same worries and concerns, and that what we can do is hug each other and remind ourselves that we should focus on the definite “will happens” (fun things to do at home and at school and with friends and family) rather than on the very unlikely “might happens.”
  • Talk about what you can do. In some cases, fear and anxiety can be relieved somewhat when children can focus on an action that they can undertake to make a difference. After a storm or other natural disaster, you can talk to your children about ways you can volunteer as a family (by donating to a relief agency, for example). You can also help people in need in your local area and encourage your child’s natural charitable instincts, whether by helping out at a local soup kitchen or helping an elderly neighbor.
  • You can also talk about what your school is doing to plan for an emergency. Tragic events like the shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut, in which 20 children and 6 adults were killed at the school, can be particularly resonant for young children who might fear that something like that could happen to them at their school. Tell your child about how the school plans to contact parents in the event there is an emergency or disaster, and what precautions they take to protect kids, such as conducting drills.
  • Don’t sugarcoat the story or lie. If your child asks whether children were killed, answer. If she asks if it could ever happen to her, explain that events like that are very rare, but do not say something like that could never happen. Instead, focus on what can be done now, and reassure her that people are considering ways to make things safer for everyone.
  • With younger kids, stick only to the basic facts when your child asks you a question and leave out any details. This is a good rule of thumb for older kids as well, though. (For example, when discussing a mass shooting, tell him how many children and grownups were killed only if he asks.) Leave out as many details as possible with younger children, and tell older children only what they need to know: that there are bad people out there, but many, many more good ones.
  • Be mindful about the personality of your child. He may be a 6-year-old who laughs at monsters in movies and can handle the truth about bad guys being a reality of life, or he may be a 10-year-old who cannot handle scary movies, and gets very emotional when he sees people being hurt. When answering your child’s questions about scary or tragic news events, keep in mind the unique personality of your child rather than gauging what you can share by what age your child is.
  • Keep an eye out for signs of stress and anxiety in your child. No matter what your child’s personality or age, however, some news stories are just too much for even grownups to handle. Watch for signs of stress and anxiety in your child, such as hyperactivity, irritability, regression, stomachaches/headaches, and separation anxiety, and take measures to minimize his stress and relieve his anxiety.
  • Get out and get physical. Exercise can do wonders for relieving stress and for helping you get a better perspective on things. And when you do something active with your child -- like taking a walk or kicking around a soccer ball -- you are spending time together while you work out your anxiety, all while getting fit to boot.
  • Ask yourself what your kid can handle right now. Be mindful that some kids are more at risk, says Dr. Lipkins. Children who have learning problems, emotional problems, or are going through major changes at home, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one, are more likely to merge the stress of a scary news event with their existing stress.
  • Seek professional advice. Get help if your child is still exhibiting signs of anxiety after a week or two, says Dr. Lipkins. Seek out a counselor, therapist, a member of the clergy, or any other spiritual leader or psychological professional you trust. They may be able to offer parents a particular perspective and guidance on how to talk to kids about tragic events. To find a mental health expert in your area, call your family physician or pediatrician for a referral. Another great source for information is The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which has information on how to talk to kids about school crises, disasters, and other difficult subjects as well as a list of resources for parents and caregivers. You can also go to the American Academy of Pediatrics website for a list of resources to help adults talk to kids about shootings and other tragic news events.

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