10 Ways to Talk to Kids About Events in the News

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Of all the effects of television on children, seeing vivid imagery and sounds of scary news stories is one that's almost impossible to avoid. Today, kids can witness natural disasters and global conflicts on their television and computer screens easier than ever before. Depending on your child's age, you should have to hide real-life happenings completely, but you should take the necessary steps to make sure you don't end up traumatizing him either. We've compiled 10 tips to help you talk with your child about the tragic news in the world.

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By Samantha Cleaver

It’s difficult to predict what will come on the evening news, but exposing kids to current events isn’t necessarily bad, says Eric Rossen, Ph.D., director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists. Just make sure you control your child’s interpretation of that event. Before you turn on tonight’s news, read these 10 ways to talk to your kid about current events.

Limit Graphic Images

News channels often replay the same event over and over, but, says Rossen, “very young children may not recognize that they’re watching replays of an event.” Instead of an earthquake shown again and again, young children may think that earthquakes are a daily occurrence. Turn off the TV if a traumatic event is shown repeatedly. Limit your child’s exposure to graphic photos, as kids are more affected by images than words.

Explain What Happened

When your child wants to know more, explain the basics. Through early adolescence, kids perceive all events as happening nearby, says Margret Nickels, Ph.D., director of the Erikson Institute Center for Children and Families. If they see a picture of a plane on fire or soldiers fighting, they may not realize that they’re seeing something from halfway around the world. Use a map or globe to give your child some perspective.

… But Don’t Over-explain

Avoid giving away too much information. If your child sees an image of a wounded soldier returning from the war in Iraq, for example, you can tell her that it’s a soldier who’s going to the hospital to get better. You don’t need to explain where the soldier was, or that our country is at war.

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Take Fears Seriously

Your child's behavior may change—from talkative to quiet, for example. Encourage any communication about what she’s thinking. Ask her open-ended questions about the event she saw. What did you see? How did you feel when you saw that? Letting her tell you what she saw ensures that you won’t overwhelm her with too much information.

Learn Together

Older children may want to research an event. Understanding more about hurricanes or earthquakes may actually relieve their fears. Research natural disasters online, or check out books about a location that’s been in the news. You may just replace an abstract fear with a new interest!

Be a Calming Influence

When there’s upsetting news, your child will look to you for guidance. Keep calm, no matter what images are flashing across the screen. If your child seems upset, acknowledge her feelings and reassure her that your family is safe. “I know it was scary to see pictures of the war, but there is no war here.”

Keep Your Schedule

If your child is upset about an event, keep the daily schedule as normal as possible. This helps kids understand that people’s lives remain normal even when news is happening all around them. Still, if she needs extra support going to bed or transitioning to school, take time to lend support and comfort for a few days.

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Encourage Play

Kids often play through their worries or fears as a way to cope, Nickels says. If your child is re-enacting the news, pretending to be a firefighter running into a burning building, or using toy helicopters to rescue people from a tsunami, encourage it. Only intervene if this play becomes aggressive toward other children.

Emphasize the Positive

After some events, like a terrorist attack, there’s the risk of immediately focusing on the negative, by talking about the “bad people” who attacked us. Rossen suggests focusing on the positive instead. Talk with your child about people and organizations that are helping the people who were hurt.

Be Part of the Solution

In response to any event, from a local emergency or a national crisis, ask your child if she’d like to help. Then, find a way to donate money or time, or raise awareness about a cause. You may not be able to fly a young kid overseas to help build houses, but small local acts of charity event may spark an interest that your child can put into practice as she gets older.

Regardless of what today’s top headline is, don’t try to explain it away. Take the opportunity to encourage your child to build her connection to the world, one newscast at a time.

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