How to Talk to Children When the News is Scary

My logical brain knew that a simple turning of the calendar page, the passing of an arbitrary marker of time we humans have constructed, would not mean an end to difficult and devastating news and events.

But I hoped. I, like so many of us, hoped for “a brighter 2021” …like magically, things would be better because we are in a new month and year. But of course, that is simply not going to happen. One of the things we want to help children internalize is something I think we all, truthfully, struggle with too…life has moments of great joy and happiness, but it also has moments of darkness, trouble, worry, fear, and anger. There will be good times, but there will always also be bad times.

Of course, as parents and caregivers of young children, it is our job to protect our young as much as we can, to keep them feeling safe and secure…but, just as I talked about back in March of last year: your children are highly attuned to you and your emotional state. They will know that something is wrong…this is not the time to pretend everything is fine. The dissonance they feel between your words and your energy is more stressful than having you authentically articulate your feelings (in, of course, a developmentally appropriate way).

I really appreciate this piece from NPR that outlines how to talk to young children (not infants and toddlers) ‘when the news is scary.’ Along the same lines, here is an article that was written today about how one parent discussed the latest events with his 7 and 9 year old: calmly, factually, openly…you can share scary things in a way that children can process them. Protecting children isn’t always the same as shielding them. There’s also an eloquent and stark letter from a Washington DC school to its parents about the attack and full-on PBS curriculum for teachers about how to help children think critically about it.

Now, I know there are only a handful of folks on this list with older children: most of the people I write to have children under 3. But I share these resources regardless as they provide us with an opportunity to think critically about what has happened, to begin to understand it and contextualize it in a way that the 24-hour news cycle and social media do not. As one of the articles I referenced above says, the news is coming at us like an open fire hose. It is vital for us to step back, take a drink, and really taste the water. Not only will it help you detach from the stress and grief, but it will also prepare you to have some simple conversations with young children about what you are feeling.

Simply saying to yourself or to your child a very simple statement like “I’m feeling [sad, angry, worried, upset, unsure, unsettled, uncomfortable] about some things I am learning about on the news. But we are safe.” will make you feel safer. And if your child is of an age to ask questions, answer them simply and directly. You don’t have to go into specifics, but you can talk generally about the actions: “Some people were angry. They pushed and shoved and broke things. They scared the people they were angry with.” And let them know that things got better: “The angry people are being talked to [What do you do in your house with angry people?]. The people who were scared feel better and they went back to work. The things that got broken are being fixed. Everyone learned they have to do better next time.”

Yes, as I started with…life is full of hardships and challenges, things we have to confront, change, or contend with. There will be good times, but there will always also be bad times. But the bad times are borne so much more easily when we face them, name them, and let them pass.

Take care of yourselves.