10 Tips on Talking With Children About Stressful News

10/13/2017 10:17 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2017

Headline news has been difficult for many of us lately. You may feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of natural and human disasters, and uncomfortable at the thought of discussing these distressing events with your children, who are likely asking or thinking “why?”.

When it comes to heartbreaking topics like the destruction caused by natural disasters, acts of unbelievable gun violence, and contentious political conflicts, we could all use help in discussing and processing the emotions surrounding them. Unfortunately, many of our major modes of connection, like TV and social media platforms, are sources of fear, promoting a general sense that “the world is not a safe place”, and this energy can affect our children, leading them to question, “am I safe?”.

How can we best discuss these events, like the tragedy in Las Vegas, the ongoing challenges in Puerto Rico, and the wildfires in California, in a way that is both realistic and provides a sense of security for children?

We turned to our colleague, Dr. Fadi Haddad, Clinical Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, and he recommends these guidelines for how adults and children (with special attention to parents and their children) can talk about stressful media news.

1. Put your oxygen mask on first.

Make sure that you have your own anxieties and reactions in check before you engage in conversation. Plan talking points, and try to have the discussion when everyone is well-fed, well-rested, and able to be as self-regulated as possible. 

Self-care is key to fruitful conversations about difficult topics for both adults and children. In times of stress, it is even more important to get enough sleep, exercise, eat well or engage in any activity that helps you to stay healthy and balanced.

2. Keeping quiet can produce anxiety.

Be proactive about talking with children because it is far better that your child discuss challenging topics with you, with emotional support and in context, and not a version of the truth on the playground or the Internet.

Although initiating the conversation can be tough, try opening the discussion with some gentle and yet probing questions. When speaking with a child, be honest without being scary, and listen carefully to what they have to say.

3. Be respectful of varying perspectives.

Everyone has his or her own view, and we all want to feel validated. In general, refrain from making assumptions based on a person’s age, gender, ethnicity that would invalidate their perspective and opinion of media news.

When we talk with children, we need to remember that they deserve to feel validated in their experiences, too. When adults speak to children, it is important to be developmentally appropriate (i.e. age, developmental maturity and cognitive skills) and do your best to evaluate the child’s ability to comprehend the complexity and gravity of certain topics. 

4. Take a break from the news.

We all need a reboot sometimes. If your mood is negatively impacted with the stressful headlines, then take a break from the news; shut off the computer and phone alerts, turn off the TV, and take a social media break for a day, or longer when possible.

Parents can manage their children’s exposure to distressing news by putting limits on media consumption, particularly around dinner and bedtime. By managing your own exposure to news and giving yourself a break at home, you will also be doing the same for your children.

5. Turn sensationalization into discussion

For parents, it’s important to guide children away from exaggerated coverage or tabloid news by watching the news with their children in order to provide input in a calm way. Open communication can help heal and unify us so it is important to talk about these issues even if emotions are running high. Remember that age-appropriate exposure is key, especially for younger children.

6. Making the “new normal” work.

There are times when world events create a state of angst. Try to keep to normal routines as much as possible to reduce anxiety, and be mindful of when you start to feel overwhelmed. Although we all experience challenging emotions, adults should be aware of their body language, avoid being overly emotional (e.g., yelling at the news or your family in frustration), generalizing (e.g., “none of our political leaders can be trusted”) and catastrophizing (e.g.,“California is going to fall in the ocean”) in front of children who might not have the perspective to understand the frustration behind those statements.

7. Act with empathy.

Try to humanize the people on the screen and show compassion for all involved. Be curious and ask questions about other ways of life and other’s experiences in the course of your conversation about the news. Stay open and empathetic to the people in the media headlines. Children need their parents to demonstrate how we shouldn’t generalize a group of people (whether it’s religion, ethnicity, profession, or otherwise) based on actions in isolated incidents.

8. Give back.

Volunteering and supporting causes that improve the lives of people in our community or on the other side of the world are powerful. Make volunteering a part of the conversation about how to achieve positive change. Giving to causes may help you feel more optimistic about the future.

Children who volunteer with their parents learn that bad news is not the end of the story. In order to make something better, humanitarian actions are positive. Be sure to talk about both challenges and solutions.

9. Seek professional help if needed.

We all face stressors that are too much for us to work through without guidance from a trained professional. Remember tip #1: Put your oxygen mask on first. If your friend or loved one’s behavior changes, talk to a professional. Some signs that you may need help include: Your friends have approached you with concerns about your well-being; you are having difficulty concentrating at work; you feel angry all the time; you use substances to cope; or you have lost interest in your favorite activities. It’s vitally important to take care of yourself so that you can help your child make sense of what is going on in the world, reduce their anxiety, and regain stability amidst uncertainty through routine.

Parents should look for these signs to know if a child may need the help of a professional: unexplained irritability; newfound clinginess; anxiety; or changes in sleep or appetite.

10. Remember: We are resilient.

Each of us has great capacity to bounce back and be resilient. Reach out for help if you need it. As Mr. Rogers said:

Fadi Haddad, MD is a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist who brings to his clinical work a mix of academic and practical experience in diagnostics, crisis intervention, and therapeutic techniques. He is on the Board of WWO and the Advisory Board of The Meeting House. He is an assistant professor of child psychiatry at NYU, and is the co-author of Helping Kids in Crisis: Managing Psychiatric Emergencies in Children and Adolescents

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