Five ways to help your child make sense of scary news

Floods ravaged Juana Matos in Puerto Rico last week in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Floods ravaged Juana Matos in Puerto Rico last week in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MIAMI • Hurricanes, fires, floods, earthquakes, North Korea and events such as the London subway bombing are deeply disturbing, if not outright devastating.

For parents, the intensity of this year's news cycle has presented yet another layer of anxiety: How can they help their children understand what is happening in the world, when they do not entirely understand it themselves?

Helping children make sense of complicated situations is no easy task. It is made more difficult when parents are under pressure to do it perfectly - which can lead mum and dad to avoid the conversation completely.

But when they skip discussing what is happening in the world, they often leave children to weigh scary information they overhear without the cushion of a reassuring interpretation that is wrapped in a safe relationship.

What, how and when parents share are determined by factors such as a child's temperament and developmental stage.

Here are five ways to talk to your kids about current events.

1 Check in often, but from a place of assurance, not anxiety. Children notice parents' anxiety and it feeds theirs.

Checking in with them from a place of assurance might sound something like: "There's so much craziness in the news - what's caught your attention?

"What do you make of what you're hearing? What are your friends talking about? What worries you?

"What makes you feel hopeful?"

2 Remind them of the values that guide your family. Tell them what you believe in and why.

Tell them instability always brings an opportunity for kindness.

Remind them that when darkness intrudes, it is an invitation to bring more light into the world.

Acknowledge that there is indeed a lot of suffering - but there is also a lot of helping.

You might say: "When things feel shaky in the world, our family shows up. We stand up for what we think is right.

"We look out for people. We look for opportunities to express our value for compassion, inclusion and respect."

3 Model boundaries and choices. Show children that you are in charge of your media intake.

Much of today's media is designed to seize attention: Feeding the fears of their audience is one powerful way they do that.

When you switch off the news, narrate what you are doing: "I'm turning this off. When I watch too much, it stresses me out.

"When I focus on what I can do to help, it makes me feel useful."

This tells your children it is okay to be stressed and shows that people can choose how much information to let into their world when they are overwhelmed.

4 Do not minimise fear or anxiety. Always make space for whatever children are feeling.

If you need to set a limit, tie it to the expression of the feeling, not the feeling itself.

"I can tell you're upset, but you can't take it out on your brother. What you can do is talk to me about it or go for a run."

Sometimes, feelings come out sideways: Helping children understand that and offering avenues to express those feelings directly are key elements in fostering their social and emotional health.

It is also important to validate fear or anxiety: "How you are feeling right now makes sense to me. I remember when I was a kid. I was so scared but it turned out okay.

"What helped me feel better was... How can I help you feel better? Do you remember what worked last time?"

5 Keep rituals and routines intact.

Children rely on routines and predictability for a sense of safety within their little universe. Build in comforting rituals that generate energy, laughter, joy and purpose.

You know your family best. Your communication choices right now will be defined by factors such as your family's culture, race, history and beliefs.

But one thing is certain: Your children are growing up in a time of heightened anxiety. Anything you do to help them make sense of what is happening will serve them at this moment and long into the future.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 01, 2017, with the headline 'Five ways to help your child make sense of scary news'. Print Edition | Subscribe