How to Help Your Kid Handle Scary News
Even if you never watch the news with your child (Dr. Huebner says that's a good idea since coverage can be sensationalized and repeated multiple times, or could use language that kids don't understand), he may hear talk about the terrible event at school or pick up on your own hushed or worried tone.
"If he's getting only bits of a story, he might fill in the gaps with even scarier details," says Dr. Huebner. Here are a few tips for calming his fears.
Talk about it tactfully.
Once you've processed your own feelings about the news, find an appropriate time to approach your child about it, such as while eating dinner or walking the dog (but not a time when he'll be alone for many hours, like before school or bed). Start the conversation by calmly asking, "People are talking about a big flood that happened. What have you heard about it?"
Keep the talk short, and don't go into gory details. You might explain, "It rained more than it usually does, but the weather people saw it coming, so just about everyone got away safely." Your child may not have an immediate reaction, but you can always check back with him later by saying, "I wonder if you've been thinking about that flood we talked about."
Frame his fear.
If your child asks, "Could this happen again?" talk about how the chance is very small and how helpers (police officers, firefighters, and disaster-relief workers) are constantly watching out for everyone's safety.
If your child hears of a school shooting, you might explain, "Somebody who didn't belong in a school got in and hurt some kids. This is not normal, and schools have put protections in place to keep students safe. Your school has too." But don't tell your child that it won't happen to her.
"Kids know their parents can't control everything," says Dr. Huebner.
Turn sadness into action.
Empathize with your child and let him know that almost everyone who sees or hears about an awful event feels upset or angered by it. Then help him find a way to help those in need: Gather toiletries to send to people affected by a forest fire, donate money to a shooting victim's family, or go to a march for people's rights or climate change.
"When kids take positive action, they become less sad and afraid," explains Dr. Huebner. "Their focus shifts from feeling helpless to feeling like what they're doing can make a difference."