How to talk to children about bad news stories

Bad-News_editQUESTION: We have three children aged four, six and eight, and we are worried about the impact of all the bad news on TV on them, particularly the eldest. With terrorist attacks and gangland killings, there has been a lot of bad news recently. We try to protect the children from it by turning off the TV news when they are there, and so on, but my eight year old is seeing some of it.

The other week she saw some reports from recent terrorist attacks when my husband and I were catching up on the news, and later started asking me questions about why it happened, why are the bad men killing these people and will they come to Ireland. While the news censored some of the scariest scenes, the images she saw still scared her.

As she’s nearly nine I know I can’t keep her wrapped in cotton wool forever but should I protect her from scary things like this or should I explain them to her and, if so, how?

Many children are affected and upset about the bad news in the media and many become scared and anxious as a reaction. Children who are quite sensitive or who have a tendency to be worriers can be particularly affected.

While radio reports and written newspaper articles might go over the heads of young children, it is the graphic images in the media and those on TV that might worry them the most.

As a parent, it is important that you protect your children from the impact of these bad news stories and ensure you are there to explain and support them when they do witness them. The age and maturity of your child are the most important factors to take into account as you consider how best to protect them. Although each child is different, below are some general guidelines.

0-7 year olds
If young children are exposed to bad news stories and images on TV, they can find it hard to put the information in context and can simply feel in danger. Their immediate worry might be that something like this might happen to their family or near to them. As a result, the general rule is that young children should be fully protected from viewing bad news stories in the media, meaning that the TV news should be turned off when they are in the room.

If they do see a story, the important thing is to reassure them – “Don’t worry, that happened somewhere else, we are all safe here.”

7-11 year olds
At this age children become much more aware of the news around them and will ask questions about it.

As in your daughter’s case, sometimes they inadvertently see bad news stories and become worried about them, and sometimes they will actually seek out the stories themselves as they want to know what is going on.

While it is still important to protect them from over-exposure to the news, you also need to think through how to respond and explain if they see it. How much information you give largely depends on their maturity and what they need to know. Remember, good balanced information helps them understand and feel less worried, so you need to try to answer their questions.

Like your daughter, often their questions are moral black and white ones – “Why are these bad men doing this?” which is why it is important to try to answer (thinking through your answer in advance helps).

Like younger children, they might feel worried for their own safety, which is highlighted by your daughter’s question: “Will these bad men come to Ireland?” Parents are often worried by these questions, because they feel they can’t give a guarantee and the question might even trigger their own fears.

This can compound the child’s fear who can see the worry on their parent’s face. As a result, I generally recommend that at this young age you give a mainly reassuring response, explaining that this bad story happened to someone else. It is very sad for the people but that you and the family are safe and well.

While older children can handle more complex information, at this younger age a primary message of safety and reassurance is important.

Adolescents 11 +
Adolescents and teenagers are, of course, much more independent and may witness the news separately from you and talk about it among their friends, and so on.

However, it is still important that you take time to discuss or explain the bad news stories with them as they may still be worried about them and may be dealing with misinformation.

Of course, at these older ages they can understand the complexities and subtleties about situations and you should use the conversation as an opportunity to answer their questions in detail and to build an understanding with them.

Talking about these “hard issues” can be the beginning of an emerging adult-like relationship with them, which they can really appreciate.

How to deal with children who get stuck in worries
For some children, bad news stories can become the trigger for more serious anxiety problems whereby they might ruminate about the bad news and obsess that something bad might happen to them or their family. In those situations, these children might need special help to tackle their worries and to put them in context.

Have a look at my other articles on dealing with these more serious cases of anxiety.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, April 2016. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.