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How to talk with kids about traumatic news stories

18 April 2019, Impact of Our Work

Events like the shooting in Christchurch are bone-chilling, distressing and impossible to comprehend. So how can we begin to explain them to our children?

News is everywhere.

Stories of violence, conflict, and injustice permeate our lives. With the 24-hour news cycle pervading all forms of media, it’s inevitable that children and young people will be exposed to potentially traumatic stories.
 
For parents and families, conversations about bad news can be difficult to negotiate.

Save the Children’s Principal Advisor for Child Protection, Karen Flanagan, has some suggestions about where to begin. 
 
“The question is not about ‘protecting’ your children from these news stories, as we know they see and hear news from a range of different sources. It’s about how you respond to questions or proactively engage them in discussions – dependant on age and level of maturity of course. 

“It is important to answer spontaneous questions as they arise honestly and factually. It is advisable to set up the right environment for more in depth discussions, to talk about the traumatic images and content in the news. At home where they feel safe and comfortable and not last thing at night. 

“We want to help children process the events in a protective and supportive context. We aim to build on the strengths of children’s curiosity (which at times can be quite morbid) and use these moments to further develop their resilience and inner strengths.”

Consider your own reactions to current events

Addressing the detail in confronting news events – whether a major catastrophe overseas, a natural disaster or a terror attack closer to home – requires parental instinct and sound judgement.

Karen urges parents to first consider their own reactions to world news.  

“Your children will look to the way you handle news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will too. Children are very resilient. But that resilience is greatly influenced by the pragmatism and response of the parent. If the adults are OK, generally the children are OK.”

Let your child be the guide

Children’s responses to news vary greatly. Some are curious and hungry for answers, others might withdraw from the reality of a distressing event.

“When a child first approaches you, they’ve already picked up the information from another source. It’s usually from school friends (who can exaggerate) or online," Karen says. “You have to answer them! It’s best you’re as honest as possible.”

“Sometimes they won’t ask you anything at all. If you’ve picked up that they’re abnormally quiet then you need to generate the conversation. Use your own instincts to test the waters.” 

Explore the issue together

For some children, a graphic news story can prompt a lingering fear. And sometimes raise the possibility that something similar could happen to them.  

“For anxious children, just a small amount of information about the news can go a long way. You may have a naturally positive, cheerful child – or a naturally anxious one. So carefully consider your child's temperament. Either way, acknowledging their questions and exploring issues together is really important.” 

“If there’s a big storm, for example, you could say: ‘yes there are a lot of hurricanes about at the moment. Why are there so many about and where do they happen in the world?’ A lot of parents don’t know the answers either! It’s a great opportunity to sit down together and find out more. Children love information. It’s how you present it that makes a difference to their reaction.”

Honesty is the best policy

If your child has concerns about what they’ve seen or heard in the news, you would hope they would come to you first for reassurance. Regardless of how distressing the news might be, it’s best they hear the truth from the people they most trust. 

“Don’t be flippant or minimise the issue, as they may perceive you are negating their concerns and may not ask you again,” Karen advises. “Think about what they do with that information later. How will they process it or talk about it?”

“You must be your child’s honest, reliable source of information. If you turn out to be an unreliable source (or you try to shield them from bad news), they’ll just go elsewhere for information.”

Reassure your child that they are safe

Big global disasters such as war, terrorism and famine tend to saturate media and are often impossible to ignore. It’s important at these times that your children know they are safe and have your support. 

“When children know their parents love them and can protect them, it’s called ‘psychological safety’. A safe household is secure, honest, and knowledgeable,” says Karen. “During a big world event, children may be most concerned about your safety or being separated from you. You need to reassure them that your family is safe.”

“You can usually ensure your child’s physical safety, for example by ensuring they wear a bike helmet,” says Karen. “But it’s when they feel safe – truly, psychologically safe – that they can get on with life.” 

Further resources:

In Australia, we have a wealth of fantastic, up-to-date materials and data on child health and safety online. ARACY’s publications and the Federal Government Australian Institute of Family Studies publish excellent discussion papers and fact sheets. The Australian Psychological Society and the Australian Childhood Foundation are good starting points for current issues on child safety and the media.

Karen Flanagan AM is Save the Children Australia’s Child Protection Advocate. She is a qualified social worker with 34 years of clinical, managerial, training and research experience in national and international child protection. As a member of Save the Children International - Child Protection Global Theme Steering Group, Karen helps determine child protection policy and practice direction across 120 countries.
 

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