Most of the time, we can prepare for the “big talks” with our kids. We can research and plan how to talk to them about everything from sex to porn, from LGBTQ issues to racism. But then, out of nowhere, something unexpected — and deeply upsetting — happens in the news. A devastating hurricane. A mass shooting. A global pandemic. A mob breaking its way into the U.S. Capitol Building.
And even as we try to process what we’re witnessing — even as the fear, sadness, and anxiety threatens to swallow us whole — our kids need us. They need us to help them process what they’re seeing and hearing. They need us to guide them through whatever awful thing has unfolded. Here are some ways to do that.
Check in with them
When something extraordinary happens in the news, chances are high that our children will hear something about it — either within the home or from a classmate or friend. Even if you manage to keep the TV off in the presence of a younger child, they will likely notice the shift in your mood and that you’re glued to your phone even more than usual (and with a somber expression on your face), or they’ll hear you whispering updates to your partner in the kitchen.
Remember that in the absence of real information, if something seems awry and they don’t know what that something is, they can assume they are somehow at fault. Little kids are very good at blaming themselves for things they have absolutely nothing to do with. There is no reason to unnecessarily scare preschool or young elementary-aged kids, but if you know — or suspect — they’ve picked up on something, it’s important to check in with them. Ask them what they’ve seen or heard, ask how they’re feeling, and answer any questions they might have in a calm, rational, and age-appropriate way.
With teens, it is especially important to talk about what they’ve seen because they are more likely to have absorbed their own news online separately from you or have discussed the current events with friends who may be misinformed. You can help correct any inaccuracies, provide additional context, or guide them toward other sources to help them process what has happened.
And remember that if you don’t know the answer to something, it’s ok to say that. Tell them you’ll find an answer to their question or research the answer together via safe and reputable sources.
Model healthy news intake and coping mechanisms
When a natural disaster, violent crime, or extreme political unrest happens, it is tempting to turn the news on and keep the news on. Particularly when a story is still unfolding, though, it’s best to limit their exposure to the ongoing news if there is a chance something disturbing may happen.
Whenever possible, try to experience the news together so you can talk about what you’re seeing or reading. Decide what aspects of the news may be helpful for them to see, such as an inspiring speech from a leader or images from a vigil or memorial service. And then, turn it off and take a break to spend time together as a family. Go for a walk, cook dinner together, pull out a board game, or curl up on the couch together to watch a funny movie.
Your kids will look to you to determine how they should be reacting to the news and how to cope with any sadness or anger they may feel, so now is the time to stay calm and model self-care.
Focus on the positive
It can be hard to find the positive when stressful or painful news is unfolding in front of us — but the positives are there. There may be those who are, perhaps, protecting our very democracy, or neighbours who are helping each other rebuild after a natural disaster, or first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to save others. Focus on any themes of unity, perseverance, or support you can find in the wake of upsetting news.
And then talk about what you, as a family, can do to help. Is there an organisation you can support, or a rally you can attend together? Maybe you can write a letter to send to your elected official. Even committing to a few acts of kindness in your own community can help kids feel a sense of agency to be a part of the good in the world.