Talking to Kids About Tragic News Stories

When something big happens in the world, use this no-scare guide to explaining current events.
Talking to Kids About Tragic News Stories

One morning, my son Jack, 8, wandered into the living room just as a story about an antigay protest in Paris that had gotten out of control came on the news. "Mom, why are those police hitting people with bats?" he asked. I didn't know where to start so I turned off the TV. "No, Mom, why would the police try to hurt people?" he continued. And that's when I said the dumbest thing ever: "Well, that's France -- they're a little weird there."

Talking about the news with a 7- or an 8-year-old is tricky. "You want him to have a general understanding of what's going on in the world, but you don't want to bombard him with information," says Elena Jeffries, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and cofounder of Positive Developments, in Millburn, New Jersey. Try these strategies to walk that fine line.

In fact, past research has found that about a third of grade-schoolers regularly watch TV newscasts, and today's 24/7 media environment means that kids can be (and probably are) continually bombarded with the disturbing sights and sounds that come from being surrounded by that type of exposure. Although there's no way (and no reason) to insulate your child from every outlet, you can ensure that he gets a safe dose of reality by taking certain precautions.

Pick the Right Medium

TV news is generally the worst choice for kids this age because it tends to run and re-run the same graphic images, whether it's the footage of the Boston Marathon bombs or destruction from a tornado. "Children tend to think these bad events are happening over and over, which can increase their fear and anxiety," says Dr. Jeffries. If you want to introduce your child to TV news, DVR it as you watch on your own. Then play back only those parts that you want her to see. But it's best to share the news with your child through newspapers, websites, and magazines. "You'll be able to screen them first and decide which stories to share," says Dr. Jeffries. Also log on to news websites that are written with kids in mind such as timeforkids.com or sciencenewsforkids.org.

Offer Context

Kids this age generally don't understand the enormity of the world. "It's hard for them to distinguish between something that's happening in the Middle East and what's going on in their town," says Britton Schnurr, Psy.D., school psychologist at Lynnwood Elementary, in Schenectady, New York. When you talk about bad news abroad, show him how far away it is on a map or a globe.

Prepare Your Kid

It's best if your child hears about news from you first. If you suspect that a tragedy may be discussed at school or at a friend's house, talk about it with her beforehand. And if she does end up learning the news elsewhere? "Before you jump into the conversation, find out exactly what she knows already," suggests Cynthia Harbeck-Weber, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist at the Mayo Clinic Children?s Center, in Rochester, Minnesota. "Then clear up any misconceptions she has and answer questions." Kids process information over time, so she may ask you more questions as the week goes on.

Point Out the Good News

Unfortunately, it doesn't get enough attention. "Seek out positive stories to share with your child," says Dr. Jeffries. "Happy events are ideal to talk about and still expand your child's worldview." That's what works for Nicole Jennings, of Columbia, South Carolina. "I pick up where Sara's second-grade teacher leaves off. After the class discussed the presidential inauguration, we let her watch a bit of the coverage," says Jennings. "We also like to follow news about Duchess Kate, so sometimes I'll let her see stories about the royals."

Do Something

"Kids are action-oriented. One of the best ways to help them process current events is to find a way to tie it into their lives," says Dr. Harbeck-Weber. If a tragedy happens, point out all the people who are volunteering and come up with ways that your family can lend a hand. For instance, your son can set up a lemonade stand to benefit the American Red Cross or make cards for kids in the hospital. Becoming involved will help him develop a sense of interconnection with the world.

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