How to Talk to Kids About Scary or Tragic Events in the News
Robert D. Keder, MD
As the growing tension between Russia and Ukraine escalates, children are seeing disturbing footage on the news and on social media, especially in Instagram and TikTok reels. They are also likely picking up on the stress and sadness from adults around them, regardless of their age. This all raises a question that parents often struggle with after scary and tragic events: What’s the best way to talk to kids about the news while also managing your own emotions as parents?
Connecticut Children’s developmental pediatrician Robert D. Keder, MD, shares advice.
- Before discussing upsetting or tragic news, check in with yourself.
Sit and acknowledge how you’re reacting to the news. Lean on your support network for help processing your own emotions. Do what you need to so you can model calm when you talk to your child.
A self-check-in is always the first step to helping your child. If you are not at an okay place to talk with them yet, it is okay to take care of yourself first! This is also a great time to anticipate what questions they might ask about Ukraine and Russia: what’s happening? What could or will happen? What will happen to them? What will happen to us? How can we help? (It’s ok not to have all the answers; you’re only human, too.)
- Even if your child hasn’t brought it up, make time to check in with them.
Like it or not, kids tend to pick up on what’s going on in the world. So when a major event occurs, it’s important to proactively address it with your child, so they can have your help processing it.
Preschool-aged children will take cues from their parents; while they might not know what is happening in current events, they can definitely tell that something is going on and they will look to you for how to handle it. School-aged children will hear about things through classmates, friends and teachers. It is best if we can help them process it first.
Related: Discussing Racial Inequality and Social Justice With Children
- Ask your child what they already know (or think they know) about what’s happening in the news.
This way you can clear up misunderstandings, and fill in any key gaps in information. It’s also a good idea to ask, “Do you have questions about what is happening?”
- Focus and really listen to your child.
You can help your child process their emotions by asking open-ended questions like, “How do you feel about that?” or “What does that make you think about?”
If they’d rather express themselves with journaling, drawing, playing with toys, or something else, encourage that, and be there with them. Help your child lean on their coping skills.
- Be honest – and age-appropriate – in your answers.
Answer truthfully, but limit the details you share depending on your child’s age. If you don’t know how to answer some questions, admit it. If it makes sense, you and your child can seek answers together.
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- Use storytelling and age-appropriate examples to help explain current events.
Sometimes it’s impossible to explain why an event occurs. But sometimes, you can help your child make sense of complicated ideas by turning to children’s books and stories, and using examples from their day-to-day life.
- Help your child feel safe.
Look for cues that your child might be worried about what’s going on in the news. If they seem scared of something similar happening in your community, take time to talk about their specific fears and give them (realistic) reassurance. Talk about all the helpers out there, and emphasize them that it’s your job to keep them safe.
Most importantly, make sure to limit or shut off how much time they have with 24/7 news feeds.
Related: Self-Care for Kids: 4 Strategies to Help Your Child Manage Stress
- Give your child hope.
In addition to addressing the sad or scary parts of the news, talk about the people who stepped in to help, and changes that are taking place to keep everyone safe.
- Watch for warning signs of anxiety.
If your child is spending significantly more time alone, seems withdrawn, is sleeping a lot more or less, or is acting out, it could be a sign that they’re struggling with the news or something else. Here’s a list of warning signs, and what to do next.
- Keep. Checking. In.
Every few days, ask your child how they’re doing. Check in to see if they’re feeling worried about anything, or if they’ve heard anything in the news that they want to talk about.
You’ll be creating an open line of communication and making a safe space to discuss feelings. These are the most important things you can do to help your child process difficult news.
(And every few days, remember to check in on how you’re doing, too! Parenting is hard work! It’s important to keep calm and parent on.)
- Parenting Through Change Kit
- Discussing Racial Inequality and Social Justice With Children
- Signs Your Child Might Be Depressed or Anxious – and What to Do Next
- Growing Resilient: What Your Child Needs to Get Through Tough Times
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