By Garica Sanford, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist

As a parent myself, I can attest to how tricky this one is. What do I tell my child when bad things happen in the news? How much is too much? Will he be afraid? Should I not say anything?

Many parents want to protect their children and maintain their innocence as long as possible, and trust me – I understand that feeling. But when bad things happen in the news, we do have to think about whether we should say something. Both children and adolescents (as well as adults), create stories to help make meaning of events and situations that happen, whether good or bad. Given this, if we as parents choose not to talk to our children, and instead keep silent, we might be missing the opportunity to have our voice as part of the story in our child’s head.

First, I want to encourage you to think broadly about what “bad things” might mean. Many adults only get really triggered by major news stories: school shootings, terrorist attacks, acts of violence. But we can sometimes be desensitized to other things that kids might classify as “bad things”. Something like a natural disaster where people had property damage might just be a news story to us, but might really create a sense of fear in a child. Even everyday news stories about a person’s struggles might trigger something for a child and not even cause a blip on our radar. So first, we have to be attuned to our children’s reactions to help understand what they might see as “bad things” in the news.

One way to decide whether or not to bring something up with your child is to think about the chances that he will learn about the news elsewhere. This depends on lots of things – the age of your child, where he’ll be interacting with others, and the specifics of the incident. So a three-year-old who spends an hour at preschool will probably not learn about a terrorist attack in another country, but a 7th grader is pretty likely to learn about an incident at the other middle school in his neighborhood. If it seems likely that the child will hear about the news from somewhere else, it is important to interject your voice and thoughts into the story.

Think broadly about where you child might hear about the news. This could range from a breaking news story that interrupts your TV broadcast, the radio in the car, the kid’s school, your church, neighbor kids, and even older siblings. You might think your child won’t hear about the news, but then your pastor works it into his sermon on Sunday, or your older son comes home from school talking about it. You may want to reach out to your child’s school to see how they plan to handle a big news story, or you may want to have a conversation with your older child about limiting what he says in front of the younger child.

If you do decide to talk to your child, this is where your own intuition about his personality will come into play. If you feel like your child is particularly anxious, you might want to give less detail about the incident. If your child seems mature and is asking meaningful questions, you might share a little more. You can use other more natural events as a gauge for what he’s ready to handle. Did it take him a month to get over the death of his goldfish? Or was he sad but curious and wanted to learn more about what happens to goldfish when they die? A naturally anxious child who has a hard time recovering from minor changes or needs an especially longer time to cope with stressful events, may not be ready to be exposed to major details about big, scary news stories. Instead, it would be best that this child only receive limited information on an “as needed” basis, when it’s inevitable that he’ll learn about it elsewhere. Some parents are more inclined to talk about the news with their kids because they want to raise socially conscious children who are aware of what’s happening in the world. While this creates opportunities for great conversation and connection between parents and children, you have to walk a careful line, because the flip side of that is a socially fearful child, and that can be a dangerous space for a child to live in.

The big question that will likely come up is, “Why did this happen?” Young kids tend to see the world in terms of good and bad. For young kids, you will want to emphasize that sometimes people don’t always make the best choices. In this case, someone made a bad choice that caused people to get hurt. This helps diffuse the natural inclination to instantly label a person or group as “bad” and that the world is a general bad or scary place.

Additionally, before parents talk with a child about sensitive materials, I STRONGLY encourage parents to first think about their own views of the world regarding good and evil, and their own values and opinions on a topic. This will help parents know how to respond to a child’s questions about the topic. Questions about religion, spirituality and morality might come up. For example, a child might ask “Why did God let this happen?” Sometimes the news story has moral or spiritual implications for a family, so you might need to have a conversation with your kids about the fact that they may meet people who have a different opinion on the topic. In this case, you will want to tell your child, “At school, you might meet other kids who think differently about this. But here’s what our family believes about this topic.” For older kids, this can be a great opportunity to see what they’re thinking on some of these tough topics. Do they have questions about why you feel that way? Do they have a different opinion from you? If so, you can engage them in a meaningful conversation around the shared and differing values.

The other big question that will come up – across all ages – is, “Will that happen to me?” This is a very hard question to answer, because of course we know that it’s impossible to protect our children from harm for the rest of their lives. Plus, when an incident hits close to home, it’s clear to us that we never know when something could happen to our own kids. Sometimes with very young kids or particularly anxious kids, some parents might want to say, “No, this won’t happen to you.” I actually encourage parents to say something like, “I really hope something like this never happens to you. I will do everything in my power to keep you safe at all times. That’s why we do so many things to protect you, like wear seatbelts and practice fire drills at school. All of the adults in your life are doing everything they can to help keep you safe.” You can really focus on this point until your child feels comforted – you can downplay the possibility or harm and play up the emphasis on protecting the child from harm.

It is important to monitor your child over time. When you share big news with your child, let him know that you understand that this is big news and that he might have lots of big feelings about it. Let him know that he can talk to you any time he has a question. You definitely want him to bring questions to you instead of to his peers, where answers are much more likely to be unreliable. Your child might have no reaction at all when you share the news, but then might come back with lots of questions a day or two later. He might seem fine but have bad dreams every single night, or you might see his grades or behavior changing. Any of these are an indicator that he might be struggling with this news, and he might need to seek additional help from a therapist or school counselor.

Some kids (and parents) can feel powerless after a scary incident. In this case, it might be helpful to find a way to gain back a sense of power. This can look different for different families, but it might mean saying a prayer for the affected people, sending cards or flowers, or collecting money or donations for a relevant charity. Sometimes channeling the anxiety into action is helpful for kids.

I try to do my best to balance out bad things in the world with good news. I talk about the people who are there helping, or how we can do small things to alleviate people’s struggles. It doesn’t make the bad go away, but it can help from spiraling into a scary place where kids think the world is bad and we should be afraid. Trust me, I wish we could protect our kids from bad news. I wish they never had to learn about violence and hatred. But that’s not the world we live in. It’s up to us to help them make sense of bad things in the news, and to be available as they learn more and more about the intricacies of the world.

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