While parents and kids were out celebrating July 4 around the country, a gunman opened fire on a parade in Highland Park, Illinois, killing seven people and injuring more than 30 others.
From mass shootings to natural disasters to violent insurrections, it seems there’s always at least one horrific news story flooding the internet and TV airwaves.
When major events occur in the world, kids tend to find out in some way, or at least can sense that something is going on. The bright side is that parents and caregivers have the power to quell children’s concerns and help them feel safe and informed in scary news moments.
“Parents and other adult role models like teachers, family members, community leaders play a crucial role in teaching children how to process difficult or traumatic information,” Parker Huston, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and clinical director of On Our Sleeves, told HuffPost.
“Whether it is an event that directly impacts them or their community or something in the distance, parents can help children cope with these situations, which unfortunately will come up periodically throughout their lives,” he added.
Below, experts share their advice for helping kids process news that may feel scary in healthy and productive ways.
Be mindful of news exposure.
“In our efforts to understand what is happening in the world, we might not realize how much the television or other news outlets are on,” noted Rachel Busman, senior director of the Child Mind Institute’s Anxiety Disorders Center. “With the kids home as much as they are, it’s important to limit constant media exposure.”
Video footage from major news events often show violent clashes, pointed guns, bodies on stretchers, and destruction of property. These images are upsetting and unhelpful to young children who do not have the emotional maturity to understand what they’re seeing.
Try to turn the TV off when your kids are around during these moments and pay attention to what they may be seeing on their devices. For older kids and teens, encourage them to limit their time spent on social media,
Talk about what’s going on.
It’s important to make time to talk and be proactive. With everything that’s happened in the world lately and the popularity of social media, younger generations have been exposed to a constant onslaught of negative news, which can have a very traumatizing and numbing effect if not processed mindfully.
“Kids hear and see things even if we try to shield them from it, especially as they get older. If you don’t address it with them, they will get their information from somewhere else,” Huston explained.
“There is not really an age that is too early to check in with children about exposure to violence or traumatic events,” he added. “It may be that they don’t grasp what is happening in the first few years of life, but they may surprise you if you ask!”
He urged parents to give themselves a little time to process what’s going on first if possible so that they aren’t speaking before they’re able to cope with the information.
“If you know your child has seen some upsetting images ask them what they think and what questions they have.”
Ask open questions.
Use open-ended questions to let your child lead the conversation. Ask, “What do you know about what’s happening? Have you seen or heard anything? How do you feel about that? What does that make you think about?”
Be prepared to listen to what they have to say, rather than dismiss or discount what they’re thinking and feeling. Once you’ve heard them out, respond with honesty and support.
“Correct misinformation,” Busman advised. “Kids fill in the gaps when they don’t have all of the information. If they don’t fully understand what’s happening, gently correct that information so they are clear.”
Parents should also open the door for kids to ask questions about what is happening or has happened.
“If you know your child has seen some upsetting images, ask them what they think and what questions they have,” Busman said. “Remind them that what they are seeing is one aspect of a larger situation so it’s OK to feel confused and ask questions if they have them.”
It’s fine if you don’t know all the answers. You can look up information together if your child is old enough or promise to do your best to figure it out.
“Tell them that you don’t know an answer yet, but you’ll try to find out for them,” Huston suggested. “Not every event has a good reason or a way to explain it.”
Keep it age-appropriate.
“As parents, we are our children’s first teachers,” noted Tammy Lewis Wilborn, a board-certified licensed professional counselor-supervisor and owner of Wilborn Clinical Services in New Orleans. “We have a role in discussing issues in a context that children can understand. So, using age and developmentally appropriate language is critical.”
Be mindful of your wording and what your child is capable of processing when talking about serious issues related to politics, violence and white supremacy. Instead of telling a very young child that someone was “shot” or “killed,” you can simply say some people were “hurt,” for instance. Consider asking your child’s teacher what language the school is using to discuss these topics or for any resources they may recommend.
The main thing is to speak honestly, but filter the amount of information you share based on your child’s age and what they know or can understand.
“For younger children, explaining it in terms they can understand or using stories they relate to can help,” Huston said. “Some parents use cartoon or movie characters, some use social stories or books.”
Validate their feelings.
It’s crucial for parents to explore and normalize their children’s feelings about the scary things they’ve seen or heard about. Encourage your children to talk about their emotions and share your own.
“The most important thing to do throughout development is to teach them how to talk through their experiences and emotions with others,” Huston noted. “Adult role models are the most important teachers of those skills. If you show them that you are willing to talk about difficult or scary topics, they’ll learn to do so as well.”
“Kids feel better when they know how a situation is being handled, so explain to them what adults are doing to keep things safe.”
Huston suggested saying something like, “I’m feeling very upset right now, I’m worried for the people impacted by it, I’m scared too.” He cautioned against sensationalizing the situation with young children by using more intense words like “terrified,” “horrified” or “completely overcome” ― even if that’s how you feel in the moment.
Ensure them they’re safe.
After you empathize with their concerns, you can correct any misperceptions or unjustified fears about safety. Tell that that despite the scary things that are happening, they are safe and protected.
“Kids feel better when they know how a situation is being handled, so explain to them what adults are doing to keep things safe,” Busman noted.
It may also be helpful to note that these events are carried out by a very small group of people relative to the population of the U.S. and that most people value peace and safety.
“Reassure them in a realistic way,” Huston advised. “Say, ‘You are safe here at home, or our job as adults who love you is to keep you safe.’”
Make it a teachable moment.
“Parents can create teachable moments to explain the family’s beliefs about the issue and prosocial ways to handle the issue,” Wilborn said. “For example, instances where violence and aggression has occurred, parents could explain to their child(ren) that there are more appropriate ways to express anger that does not involve harm to self, others, or destruction of property.”
In addition to hearing that violence is not the answer, kids can learn about peaceful protest and political action. For older kids, it’s also an opportunity to learn history and understand the events and conflicts that led to this moment. Sharing the context can be very helpful and make the news feel less overwhelming.
Focus on the positive.
“Focus on the good ― who is helping?” Huston suggested. “Find the helpers. Talk about people in the community you know who are helpers. Read books about people who have overcome difficulties to be successful.”
Times of unrest offer the chance to encourage kids to be “upstanders” in their daily lives and act as a force for good in the midst of negativity or wrongdoing. Look at negative or scary news as a springboard for your family to get involved in causes that matter to you to promote safety and problem-solving.