How to Talk to Children About the News
Be honest, be reassuring, and be aware of how the news affects worldviews
Posted Oct 15, 2020
Caustic political campaigns. Civil unrest. Mounting health and economic tolls of COVID-19. Raging wildfires in California. Another hurricane pummeling the Gulf coast. The news can be fraught with difficult topics for parents to tackle with their children.
Parents should assume that children are more aware of the news than parents may realize. Thus, by not talking with children about the news, parents risk having their children’s information come exclusively from peers, teachers, or the media itself. Particularly now that many children (and adults) get their news from social media, misinformation abounds. Parents can begin a conversation about the news by asking children what they may have seen or heard.
For children of all ages, the news can present a scary picture of the world. Thus, a place to start when communicating with children about the news is to set an example of how to react to the news in a way that expresses empathy for those who have been negatively affected by a tragic event but that is not overly emotional or dramatic. Children take their emotional cues from parents and model their responses to news on their parents’ responses. Because the news often portrays stressful events in the world, parents can help children cope by maintaining a secure, peaceful environment within the home.
Parents should also set the stage for children and adolescents to be able to ask questions about the news and express their concerns. Parents’ responses to these questions and concerns should be tailored to match the developmental stage of their children, using language and concepts that children can understand.
For toddlers and preschoolers who see disturbing images or hear unsettling news, parents’ best approach is often simply reassuring children that they are safe, that the events are taking place far from them (if that’s actually the case), and that adults are working to set the situation right. Helping children maintain a sense of trust and security should be a goal with young children.
For elementary school age children, parents should be prepared to answer children’s questions (often more than once, as the news can be confusing). Parents should aim for honesty when answering children’s questions so that children will continue to trust parents as a source of reliable information. Children often personalize situations that they see in the news and may worry about their own safety. Parents can reassure children about ways that they and others will try to protect children.
For adolescents, parents increasingly can use events in the news as a starting point to launch discussions about important political issues and world events. Cognitively, adolescents are able to think more abstractly than younger children, and adolescents often are motivated to take action to improve the world around them. Thus, after learning about the Black Lives Matter movement or how climate change is contributing to extreme weather events, such as wildfires and hurricanes, adolescents may be motivated to participate in protests and take other action to work toward change. If the news portrays an event that would benefit from a direct response, parents can facilitate their adolescents’ participation in volunteer relief efforts, such as packaging and sending supplies to communities in need following a natural disaster.
Communicating with children about the news is an opportunity for parents to share their values and worldview with children. Most children adopt the political views, religious values, and world perspectives of their parents, in large part because children love and admire their parents. Talking about the news provides a way for parents to let their children know their views about topics that otherwise may not come up in everyday conversation.
Finally, take a break from the news. Parents should not constantly leave the television or radio on in the background. And parents should monitor adults’ conversations about the news when children are present—children learn a lot by overhearing adults talk with other adults. In addition to communicating about the news, parents should also let children be children, with plenty of opportunities for play and fun that do not revolve around events in the news.