How to talk to your children about distressing news events
The world feels like a pretty dark place at the moment. As we emerge from the disruption of the pandemic, we are faced with wars, civil violence, political upheaval and natural disasters, all of which are reported on a constant 24-hour news cycle.
It is a natural, even positive, human reaction to respond with fear, grief or anger. But how can we help our children cope with distressing news events? How do we protect them from becoming overwhelmed?
While there are no easy answers, and you should obviously see a professional if you are really worried, here are some ideas.
Trust that you know your child. While all children will need to be protected, it is important to acknowledge that not all children will respond in the same way. During the pandemic, for example, young people with preexisting mental health problems were found to be more at risk of deteriorating mental health than those who didn’t. Some children are simply more sensitive or more prone to rumination than others. While we need to support all our children, some may need more support than others.
Take a break from the news. There is strong evidence to suggest that constant exposure to negative news cycles can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. For children particularly, this exposure has an adverse effect even when the events do not affect them personally. This is compounded by the way that news is presented; the more vivid and dramatised the report is, the more negative the impact. Unfortunately, social media developers know that that the more sensationalised the report, the more likely people (including children) are to read it.
Consciously limit your family’s exposure to the news. Consider turning off background TV or radio in the house or car. Depending on the age of your child, you might want to set limits on the amount of time they are spending on screens. For older children, you could talk about the research and help them make good decisions about what they are choosing to look at online.
Keep having conversations. Children often want to talk, and if we don’t talk to them in an age-appropriate way about what they are seeing, they will get their information somewhere else. Give children the space to express how they feel and reassure them that what they are feeling is normal. It can also be helpful to share coping strategies you find helpful and that they could try.
Be aware of your own responses. How parents react and talk about the news will shape the way children feel. They will pick up our views and fears and may be hyper-vigilant to your reactions and conversations when they are feeling anxious or insecure. Be careful of when and where you talk about things children may find confusing or upsetting.
Reassure them that they are safe. Reassure them they are not in any immediate danger and that they are safe.
Focus on healthy routines. Maintaining family routines help make young people feel secure and safe. Having regular meal and bedtimes and continuing to do things they enjoy; playing sport, going for walks, spending time together as a family, are concrete ways of showing them that ‘normal’ life goes on, even in times of terrible adversity.
Finally, it is vitally important to look after yourself in these times. Spend time with good friends and family, rest when you are tired, see a professional if you need to. Remember that the supporter also needs support.
Thornton, S. How will the bad news cycle of recent years affect young people? British Journal of Child Health (2022)
Masood, R. How to talk to kids about violence, crime and war, Common Sense Media (2023)
Kristen Molloy is the Associate Head of the Crowther Centre, Literacy and Engagement at Brighton Grammar School, an all-boys school in Melbourne. She is the mother of two boys. This article is about Parenting
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