Parenting advice I shared on the TODAY show on how to talk to kids about troubling news and reduce their fears and jitters about world events
Tsunamis. Cyclones. War. ISIS beheadings. Nuclear meltdowns. Pilot takes down a plane
If you are feeling a bit jittery about the news lately, imagine how our kids must feel. We know that constantly hearing about troubling world events does more than just increase children’s jitters, but can also cloud their views about the world. This week’s current events pose additional parental concerns: how to calm kids’ worries and answer their queries about news involving complicated things like fuel rods, fission, uranium and nuclear energy? Phew! Then there’s the destruction of Vanuatu, ISIS beheadings, massacres of tourists, and a pilot taking down a plane and murdering his passengers.
Though we can’t change world events nor shield our children from the harsh life realities studies show that certain parent responses do make a big difference in helping kids adjust during tough times.
Be Calm to Help Your Kids Stay Calm
In scary times, kids use our behavior as their model to copy. They will mirror our behavior and will be calmer if you are calmer. Remember, it’s not what you say about the news how you react that really makes the difference in helping reduce kids’ jitters. So keep your emotions at bay so you don’t scare the pants off your kid. Security for younger kids is often better conveyed physically (rocking, hugging and touching) than with our words.
Monitor News Reports
Too much television is never good for kid jitters, but especially those showing graphic images of tragedy. Monitor what your child watches. When in doubt, turn the television off.
Studies show that even though kids may not have personally witnessed a tragedy, they can still be traumatized from viewing troubling news images.
Consider your child’s age and temperament.
Toddlers and preschoolers: Young children are easily traumatized with graphic images and can’t separate “real” from “fantasy.” They may interpret replayed news reports of a troubling event (such as a tsunami wave or a plane crashing) as additional attacks. Turn off the television.
School-Age: Do not overexpose your kids to media coverage. Newspaper coverage is preferable as a news source because images are not so graphic.
Tweens: A study of over 600 middle school students found that that “late-breaking news without an adult there to comfort or explain” produced anxiety. Watch news reports with them so you answer their questions.
Don’t forget that your child may get news from digital sources such as cell phones, Internet, and I-Pad. Monitor those sources as well.
Talk Calmly Offering Perspective and Reassurance
Don’t assume because your child isn’t asking questions that he isn’t concerned. Peers talk and often give inaccurate facts increasing those jitters. Talk to your child about the news to offer perspective as well as reassurance using these keys:
• Explain facts calmly and simply
“There was troubling news in the world today. “What are you friends saying? Or “What have you heard?” Use your “sex talk” as a model: not too much, not too little, but just right for what the child needs at the moment.
Too much information can backfire. Instead, give small bits of information on a “need to know basis.”
The “Rewind Method” can help clarify that your child understands your message: “Now you tell me what I just said.”
It’s always best to hold short, ongoing chats about tough new subjects instead of one long marathon. “I’m here anytime you want to chat.”
• Respect feelings
You want your child to feelcomfortable sharing his concerns or worries—whatever they may be.“I’m sad, too!” “Some people cry when they’re upset, other people keep it inside. Hint:Don’t try to reason your child’s fears away. His worries are real, but your calm reassurance with the right facts helps reduce jitters.
• Be Age Appropriate
Gear your responses to your child’s age, needs and maturity and what he needs to know. Try to anticipate your child’s queries and concerns. Here are things to consider:
Explaining Scary News to Younger Kids:
• Reassure safety: Young children are egocentric so reassure your child that harm won’t come to them. “That big wave did hurt a lot of people, but it is hundreds of miles away from here.” “Planes are dropping bombs, but not all planes carry bombs.”
• Use simple, understandable terms:Younger kids are literal, so hold off on terms like “tomahawk missiles,” “radiation,” or “nuclear.” A “no fly zone” to a preschooler may mean a place where insects aren’t allowed.
• Keep it brief. Don’t overwhelm with too many details: one sentence is often enough. Be prepared to hear the same question again and again which is how a young child processes new information.
• Give words for feelings: Their emotion vocabulary is limited so help them find words for their feelings: “You look scared. Let’s talk about your worries.” “I’m sad too. It’s okay to be sad.” Drawing pictures, storytelling or using puppets about worries is helpful.
Explaining Scary News to Older Kids:
• Reassure safety about victims: They still need reassurance and want specifics for their own safety as well as others.
“The U.S. Health Department is checking the milk and none will be delivered to the United States.”
“Our best scientists say radiation will never reach our coast and will blow out to sea.”
Tweens and teens are also developing more empathy so often are concerned about other people’s safety.
“The coalition is using precision strikes which means they’re not firing missiles at night and not where there are civilians.”
Teens may want more clarification about what is being done to help those in need.
“Our military is there to offer support.” “The Red Cross is sending in food and blankets.”
• Give honest answers on “need to know basis.”Adolescents can discuss events on a more sophisticated level and may ask those “What will happen next?” type questions.
Be also prepared for more difficult questions about complicated new coverage like: “What is nuclear energy?” or “Is nuclear power safe?” Also, be ready to learn about radiation, nuclear reactors and fuel rods from your teen.
• Extend learning.Don’t pretend to know answers-just turn them into teachable moments: “I don’t know. Let’s go online and read what a reactor plant is.” “I’m not sure where our ships are firing from. Let’s look on a map.” Or say you’ll get back with the answer or ask him to ask his science teacher and then tell you.
Adolescents are also concerned about “unfairness” issues: “Why can’t the country solve the problem for themselves?” Use those moments to discuss your values and hold some dynamic family political discussions.
Share News of Hope and Compassion
While the headlines feature devastation, war and death, there are glorious stories of heroism, cooperation and goodness. It’s important to assure your children that there’s more to the world than destruction and sorrow. Look those “Good News Repots”-the positive stories in the world–to share with your family. For instance, discuss the cooperation and resilience of the Japanese people.
Or offer news about a rescue: “Did you hear about the grandmother and her grandson in Japan who were found after nine days? The rescuers never gave up!”
Empower Kids With Proactive Ways to Help
One proven way to reduce jitters is to find ways for kids to help victims. You might start by asking: “Why do you think people should do to help?” Or brainstorm ideas as a family. Model compassion and involvement for your kids to copy: “I’m concerned about the children in Japan. “I’m going to find a charity where I can make a donation to help.”
Or try these ideas:
• Draw or write letters: Young children can draw or write letters that convey concern to school children and send them to schools in Vanuatu
• Put together care packages: Help your kids put together a “care package” (a teddy bear, crayons, coloring book) and send to a child in Haiti or
• Make donations: Older kids can start a clothing drive, collect sleeping bags, raise funds with friends for the Red Cross, or gather all the coins to make a donation.
• Attend a service: If your family is religious say a prayer for those affected by the disaster.
Take Your Child’s Emotional Pulse
It is normal for kids to be jittery when hearing or seeing tragic news events. Be concerned if anxiety signs like the ones that follow continue to last or increase. If so, get the help of a mental health professional: If your child shows signs of anxiety for more than a few weeks or if you’re concerned seek professional help.
SIGNS OF WHEN TO WORRY
Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
Behavior regression: acting out
Suddenly clingy or withdrawn
Quick to anger, easily upset
Inability to focus
Difficulty sleeping, nightmares
Change in eating patterns
Headache and nausea
How a child copes with tragic news depends on factors such age, genetic predisposition, and past experiences. Younger children are often more likely to be overwhelmed by events that might not bother an older child.
Children more vulnerable to tragic news are those who may have experienced a recent tragedy or stress-related incident such as an accident, divorce, illness, death of a loved one, have a deployed parent or loved one near the tragedy or a more anxious or sensitive temperament.
The Bottom Line
Trauma, war, and natural disasters and are a sad but inevitable part of life. The good news is that by offering the right support parents can reduce kid jitters, help them learn ways to rebound and instill optimism about their future.
Now take a deep breath, and go hug your kids.
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.
You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Checkfor ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.
You can also find dozens more research-based and practical tips in my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.Tips from this blog were adapted from the chapters Stressed and Worrying About the World.