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Social and Emotional Learning

Talking to Kids about Scary News

5 Min Read
Talking to kids about scary news

Sad news comes at us on our TVs and ticks through our social media feeds. No matter how much we try to shield children, they are taking it all in.

Studies show that traumatic events put children at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and behavioral and learning problems. And they don’t have to experience the events firsthand to feel their impact. Children who are exposed to scary news on TV, social media, or even by overhearing adult conversations can show many of the same symptoms as those who are directly impacted.

Talking to children about scary news and making sure they have facts can help. We asked Katherine Cowan, director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), for tips on how to restore a sense of calm when the 24-hour news cycle gets to be too much. Check out this blog for more ways to help students who are overwhelmed by the news.

Focus on Feelings

Start by simply asking children what they’ve heard and how they’re feeling. This way, you can clear up any misunderstandings and provide some reassurance.

“Listening is critical to meaningful dialogue with anyone,” says Cowan. “From a teacher’s perspective, it is extremely important to know where their students are as individuals—not just as a whole classroom—in terms of what they know, and what they’re feeling and thinking.”

Narrative or journal writing can provide children with an outlet for their emotions. Writing responses or drawing pictures of how they are feeling may also help school professionals identify students who need additional psychological support. Our free resources for teaching social and emotional learning skills will also prove useful.

A positive next step, Cowan says, would be to help kids transform their feelings into appropriate actions, such as taking part in a peaceful protest, organizing a fundraiser, or writing to an elected official. “[These are actions] that help us feel connected to solutions, connected to others, and that help us feel like we can be a part of making a positive difference,” she explains. “It’s an ongoing process. You don’t have that conversation once and then you’re done.”

Age-Appropriate Discussions

Media coverage can provide valuable information in a crisis and build empathy for those who are impacted around the world. As the primary sources of accurate information, caregivers and educators should explain facts as plainly as possible, while being mindful of age appropriateness.

“A seven-year-old doesn’t need the same information or details [that you would give] a 17-year-old,” Cowan says. No matter the age, she advises against overburdening them with information that they really don’t need.

With elementary children, stick to addressing misconceptions. They might see repeated coverage of scary news as a succession of different scary events. They might also fear that a faraway crisis is happening nearby. Use maps to show the location, emphasizing for students the distance. Provide context to ensure they understand the scope of the event. Clarify misconceptions, but avoid lecturing.

“It’s an opportunity for an informed adult to help correct any factual misunderstandings,” Cowan says. “If children only get snippets of news or conversations, they might fill in the blanks with things that may make them feel worse unnecessarily.”

Middle and high school students may want to explore the politics involved or participate in charitable work related to the current event. Discuss with young people some strategies for problem solving after a crisis and challenge them to take action.

Accentuate the Positive

Whenever possible, take a positive spin. Share news articles that focus on the work of rescuers or volunteers in a crisis. Highlight acts of kindness, generosity, and support in your community and across the nation.

“Kids, like adults, need to find something that gives hope and shows the power of possibility,” Cowan says. “In moments that feel volatile or dark, it’s imperative to help identify what people are doing to help others and to make a positive change in whatever is causing the problem.”

Cowan suggests raising the questions: How can my family, my classmates, or my school help? How can we make a positive difference? Taking action, she says, provides a ray of hope—something that people need in stressful times. “It’s our responsibility as adults to help children and young adults do that. They are looking to us to be part of that positive pathway process.”

When the news highlights people facing challenges, it’s a good idea to share stories with children about how people overcame similar challenges in the past. Use picture books to help children learn lessons about resilience. Use nonfiction books to help students understand how communities have dealt with similar events in the past.

Watch for Warning Signs

Is the news taking a toll on kids? Watch for warning signs such as persistent fearfulness that can manifest as clinginess and sleeping problems, heightened irritability, attention deficit, depression, social withdrawal, and even physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomach aches, and a lack of energy).

Cowan says most children who experience difficulty coping after a traumatic event will be fine after receiving intervention and care from their natural support systems, which can include their parents, caregivers, teachers, and friends. If those natural support systems don’t help the child reach the pathway of hope and possibility, more extensive intervention may be required.

A Sense of Stability

Sad news can disrupt our lives and make us feel hopeless. Studies suggest that children model their coping strategies on those of the adults around them. Keep in mind that if adults panic, children will likely panic, too. A show of strength and confidence can quell anxieties.

As parents, caregivers, and educators encourage discussion about scary news, they should also work toward restoring stability by limiting children’s exposure to sensationalist news stories and resuming familiar routines or creating new, comforting ones.—Reporting by Glenn Greenberg

Additional Resources:

Explaining the News to Our Kids from Common Sense Media

How to Talk to Your Children about Conflict and War from Unicef

Caring for Kids After Trauma, Disaster and Death: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, Second Edition (PDF) by the New York University Child Study Center, 2006.

Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers from the National Association of School Psychologists

Supporting Marginalized Students in Stressful Times: Tips for Educators from the National Association of School Psychologists

Resources for Talking About Race, Racism and Racial Violence With Kids, compiled by the Center for Racial Justice in Education

15 Classroom Resources for Discussing Racism, Policing, and Protest, compiled by Education Week

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