When kids learn about current events, whether they overhear a conversation, catch a glimpse of the evening news, or see a newspaper photo, they may feel overwhelmed. It’s difficult to predict what images will come on the evening news and when an image of war or natural disaster flashes across the screen, you can’t always change the channel. As a result, says Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media parenting editor, kids get exposed to information that may not be age appropriate.

Exposing kids to current events isn’t necessarily bad, says Eric Rossen, PhD, National Association of School Psychologists director of professional development and standards, but make sure you control your child’s interpretation of that event. Before you turn on tonight’s news, here are 10 ways to talk to your kids about current events.

  1. Limit Exposure to Images and Sound. When an important event occurs, 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 images of one earthquake played again and again, young children may think that earthquakes are a daily occurrence. Turn off the TV if a traumatic event is being played over and over. Limit your child’s exposure to graphic photos, as kids are more affected by images than words. And turn down the volume, as loud noises, such as shooting or explosions, may startle kids.
  2. Explain What Happened. When your child sees an image and wants to know more, explain the basics and add some context. Through early adolescence, says Margret Nickels, PhD, director of the Erikson Institute Center for Children and Families, kids perceive all events as happening nearby. If they see a picture of a plane on fire, or people fighting, they may not realize that they’re seeing a conflict that’s halfway around the world. Use a map or globe to give your child some perspective.
  3. But Don’t Over-Explain. Avoid giving kids too much information, advises Knorr. 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.
  4. Take Their Fears Seriously. If your child’s behavior changes, from talkative to quiet and thoughtful, for example, he may be processing information. Encourage any communication about what they’re thinking. If your child brings up a news event, ask him open-ended questions. What did you see? How did you feel when you saw that? Letting him tell you what he saw ensures that you won’t overwhelm him with too much information. Then, normalize his feelings by sharing how you felt when you learned about the event.
  5. Learn Together. Older children, says Knorr, may want to research an event; learning more about hurricanes or earthquakes may relieve their fears. Research natural disasters online, or check out books about a location that’s been in the news.
  6. Be a Calming Reference. 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 in Iraq, but there is no war here.”
  7. Keep Your Schedule. If your child is upset about an event, keep the daily schedule as normal as possible. Still, if she needs extra support going to bed or transitioning to school, take time to help her for a few days.
  8. Encourage Play. Kids often play through their worries or fears as a way to cope, says Nickels. 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 his play becomes aggressive towards other children.
  9. 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.
  10. Be Part of the Solution. In response to any event, from a local emergency or a national crisis, ask your child if they’d like to help. Then, find a way for them to donate money or time, or raise awareness about a cause, selling lemonade to raise money for cancer research, for example.

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.