General Recommendations and guidelines to help parents talk with their children about distressing events.
Turn on the news and you can find alarming stories at all hours of the day and night. The continual and often graphic coverage of violence, devastation from natural disasters or war, children separated from families, and even the recall of popular contaminated food can be very upsetting. As parents, managing our own reactions and emotions to these events can be quite challenging, particularly when events include children who are hurt or hurting. When our children are watching us (which is just about always) how we handle this information can affect how they feel and how they are able to handle what they see or hear.
Children and adolescents may also be watching these events on the news separately or have exposure to news when it is on “in the background” at home. Parents might not even know that their children are aware of some of these events. Last spring I had a young child spontaneously mention a school shooting in front of her mother in the clinic waiting room. Her mother was surprised that she even knew about it, but with this realization her child was able to talk about her feelings and gain support and reassurance of her safety.
Considering how upsetting these events can be for adults, learning about these situations can be even more confusing and distressing for children who do not have the life experience, coping skills, or ability to understand what is happening and what it means for them. Below are general guidelines and recommendations for how to talk with children and adolescents about these events. Ideally, have these conversations when you can give your full attention and when you are calm. References and additional resources are available at the end of the post.
Honest and Age Appropriate
- Be honest, but keep your language and content age and developmentally appropriate.
- Be prepared and know generally what you want to say but, follow your child’s lead for how much information to share and ask what they know first to address misinformation or conclusions.
- Consider what is helpful for a child to hear. Keep it simple and straightforward. Be careful to discuss in a calm and rational way.
- Be aware of your tone, particularly when a topic is highly emotionally charged or a personal trigger for you.
- Allow children to express their feelings. Validate feelings and normalize emotions: Try not to dismiss or minimize concerns or the feelings expressed (e.g., ‘its OK to feel scared, mad or sad’).
- While being careful not to minimize or dismiss feelings, it is also important to reassure your children that they are safe.
- Consider your child’s temperament, limit repeated exposure to images or news coverage for anxious or sensitive children.
Awareness and Self-care
- Pay attention to your reactions and any behavior changes for your child. While children may not understand abstract concepts, they will pick up on the emotional response of parents. It is important to be aware of how this situation is affecting you and get any support you need.
- Watch children for signs of fear, anxiety, or confusion. Observe changes in sleep, eating, play, behavior.
- Children will watch you— model calm and rational responses. Try to model healthy coping methods.
- Talk about how you are managing your feelings; this also reinforces building positive coping strategies (e.g., ‘I am sad about what is happening. When I feel this way I like to take a nice walk, to snuggle you, to listen to music’.)
- Take care of yourself and try to get good sleep, eat healthy food, exercise, and participate in fun, relaxing, and enjoyable activities alone, as well as with your children.
Help Children Feel Safe and Secure
- Keep a “big picture” perspective. The goal is to leave your child feeling safe and secure (not overwhelmed and helpless). Children need to feel safe and secure in order to be healthy and function well.
- Limit access to news and coverage.
- Reassure your child that you will do all you can to keep them safe. Remind them how they are loved. Model caring and compassionate responses.
- Point out and talk about the people who are doing good and trying to help.
- Let your child know you can talk about the topic again any time they want.
- Depending on the age and interest of the child, help him or her get involved in positive activities to address the issue and feel part of change.
Age Based Considerations:
Infancy and Early childhood: Young children need to be protected from distressing news coverage. Limit television watching and emotional discussions when children are present. If a child has seen images or coverage and is concerned, provide a very simple statement with an emphasis on how they are safe and will be protected by their caregivers
Young children (ages 3-6): Again, limit exposure to news, especially pictures. Even if you think that a child is not paying attention, if they can see or hear you, they likely are. if you are upset and have a strong reaction to news (which is normal and understandable) this could be upsetting and confusing.
Middle Childhood (6-12): Provide simple information, and assure safety. Limit details so as not to overwhelm. Let children ask questions and lead conversation. You can start a discussion asking what he or she knows and feels. This also allows you to clarify any inaccurate information. Help the child put events into perspective.
Adolescents: Provide opportunities to talk, listen, help address misinformation, and support. Introduce opportunities to talk.
If your child or teen is experiencing anxiety or distress that is negatively affecting daily life or functioning and you want to obtain additional support please call our office to schedule a consultation or session with one of our therapists.
References and Resources
Tips for talking with and helping children and youth cope after a disaster or traumatic event.: A guide for parents, caregivers, and teachers (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA12-4732/SMA12-4732.pdf
How to talk to children about difficult news (American Psychological Association)
Supporting Vulnerable Students in Stressful Times: Tips for Parents (National Association of School Psychologists) https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/diversity/social-justice/supporting-vulnerable-students-in-stressful-times-tips-for-parents
Explaining the News to Our Kids (Common Sense Media) https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/explaining-the-news-to-our-kids
How much news coverage is OK for children? (American Psychological Association)
Disrupting young lives: How detention and deportation affect US–born children of immigrants (American Psychological Association) http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2016/11/detention-deportation.aspx
Communication Tips for Parents in talking with children (General) http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/communication-parents.aspx
Help Kids Cope (a smartphone app to help parents talk about disasters) https://www.nctsn.org/resources/help-kids-cope