It feels impossible to avoid bad headlines and news clips these days. As hard as it is to process all the negative things happening in the world as an adult, it’s even more challenging for children. That’s where parents come in.
“Children look to their parents to help them make sense of the world around them,” said Jonathan Comer, a psychology professor with Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families and director of the Network for Enhancing Wellness in Disaster-Affected Youth. “When bad things happen, kids take their cues from their parents, and they look to us as models to help them gauge how they should process or cope with difficult information.”
Talking to children about the news is an important way to educate them, normalize feelings, help them feel safe and inspire them to take positive action.
“Discussing difficult national and world events often provides key opportunities for parents to reaffirm family values with their children,” Comer noted. “Many difficult events create tangible opportunities to discuss important societal issues that transcend individual events ― such as inequality, resource insecurity, discrimination and injustice.”
But do kids need to know about every single flood, shooting, political uprising or other type of upsetting event? Below, Comer and other experts offer their advice for determining when to talk to children about bad news stories and how to approach the conversation in a productive way.
If it’s big enough or affects everyday life, definitely talk about it.
Many global, national or local news events are unavoidable topics, so parents should be the first source for their children to hear about these things and help them digest what is happening.
“There are major news events like a global pandemic that are going to have an effect on a child’s life either way ― or there are things like the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd that might be talked about at a young age in school, on the playground or on social media,” said Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute. “When something is happening and not being talked about at home, it creates more uncertainty and anxiety for kids because they are attuned and know something is going on but we’re not talking about it.”
Because parents know their children best, they’re the optimal sources for sharing this kind of information, setting the context and discussing the emotions involved in processing it.
“Child-to-child news sharing is often filled with misunderstandings, rumors and large gaps in the real, essential information. There is far more control when discussions are held at home,” said Craig Knippenberg, a therapist and author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions to Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.”