Helping kids make sense of the news

One of our goals as parents is to maintain a safe, secure environment for our kids to grow and mature within, preparing them to confidently face the big wide world independently when they are good and ready. We get to control what happens within the four walls of our homes. Outside of that space, however, we’re less able to apply our preferred filters. In fact, even an innocent drive to school or the supermarket can be harshly interrupted with disturbing news on the radio. All parents with a working car radio have been there – that moment when the newsreader announces the latest atrocity, disaster or scandal, straight into the curious ears of our children, and we’re left fumbling for the volume control while erratically whistling or faking a coughing fit. It’s awkward, it’s awful and it’s tragic. Bad news is a fact of life, but how much should we let our kids in on this reality?

Provide Shelter

What impact does news of war and terrorism have on children? Does seeing the wreckage of downed airliners, gunfire in the streets or the Armed Offenders Squad in action affect them? Even though some events are unfolding on the other side of the world, no country on earth is exempt from suffering and any bad news from anywhere around the globe has the potential to frighten and upset our children. So what do we let them see/hear/read and how do we help them process what they’ve heard?

A valid parenting response is to shelter our children as much as possible. Kids have enough on their plates already and it serves no helpful purpose for them to take on the world’s problems. Anxiety levels in our children are through the roof and there’s nothing to be gained from heaping more onto the pile, especially issues our children can’t understand or resolve.

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Depending on your family culture and the sensitivity of your children, it can be best to simply  avoid exposing your kids to news broadcasts full stop, especially when you know a disturbing story is unfolding. While it’s good for our children to be aware of current affairs and how issues affect communities, they’re not missing out on anything developmentally if they don’t watch television news or listen to the radio. There are news providers that broadcast ‘safe’ news stories and current affairs that are relevant to kids. These can open our kids eyes and minds to their place in the world, without overwhelming them with fear or confusion. Kiwikidsnews.co.nz, for example, is a website used in many New Zealand schools.

Provide perspective

It’s different, of course, if children are directly affected by something and they need some perspective on it. Just keep in mind that any information about scary and disturbing events should always be delivered through an age-appropriate lens. Television, radio and print media generally don’t serve this purpose! It falls to parents and caregivers to add grown-up perspective to any bad news a child needs to know or has inadvertently heard about. A child’s imagination will quickly fill any gaps between real facts. Add to this the impressions shared by a bunch of classmates at school and your child is soon dealing with an overwhelming and confused interpretation of events. Kids need an adult to overlay the true significance and meaning. Talk to your kids about relevant news stories and ask what they are afraid of. Their fears might be wildly amplified beyond real risks. Be honest with them about the safety of where you live. The truth might be very reassuring.

If, as a family, you do watch or listen to news reports together, add your own commentary. There is value for older children especially in seeing how events both locally and internationally affect people, and also how humanity responds to good times and bad. As you help your children make sense of what they are seeing or hearing, remind them that the news loves to show hot-headed people, but that there are cool-headed people as well. After significant events, the news will always broadcast interviews with people expressing extreme views. Not every view is true, not every dire prediction comes to pass. Our kids have brilliant and capable minds and we can teach them to filter and interpret news.

News footage can look very much like the graphics of an exciting movie or video game, but real people are being killed and hurt. We don’t want our kids to be afraid, but we don’t want them to be uncaring, either. We might be far away from the event geographically, but when we’re exposed to bad news, our kids should sense our own sober concern and compassion.

For more advice on age-appropriate discussion around bad news and traumatic events, take a look at our article How To Talk To Your Kids About Trauma

Provide peace

As sweet as it may seem, it is unrealistic to expect that our children can live in a modern world and be completely oblivious to pain and suffering. People make mistakes. Nature spontaneously implodes and explodes. Crime infiltrates communities with heart-breaking effects – whether the result of simple bad choices or horrific acts of sheer evil. There is pain and suffering in the world. But there is also good, beauty and cause for celebration. There are people capable of committing atrocities, but there are millions more people capable of spectacular acts of compassion, care and love. Our kids will invariably hear bad news, but we can counter this by saturating their hearts and minds with passionate messages of hope. Tell them all about heroic acts of bravery and rescue, generous acts of philanthropy and the great power of small acts of kindness.

It probably doesn’t help in the long run to wrap our kids up in cotton wool. There are scientifically proven life-long benefits, however, in wrapping our kids up in love. Provide your kids with enough age-appropriate information to answer their questions and calm their fears, then direct them to a more peaceful state of mind. Once your child has found reassurance in having their questions answered, you can gently set a boundary – “Let’s talk about something else now. We can talk more about this later/tomorrow if you would like to.” Allow your child plenty of time and space to address any worries, but dwelling on a negative topic for too long can be unhealthy and unproductive. When you feel it is appropriate for your child, change the subject. Remind them how loved they are by the caring adults in their world. Remind them that the caring adults in their world – including parents, whanau members, neighbours, teachers and coaches – can be relied upon to do everything in their power to protect children from harm.


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About Author

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamarki.

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