Talking with Kids About Tragedy, Devastation, and Violence in the News
This week, like much of the country, we have been transfixed on watching news footage out of Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, with the immense flooding and devastation and the resulting heroic rescues. In a world where there is so much ugliness in the media, it’s nice to show my kids the news stories about the selfless work of first responders, about communities coming together in the face of tragedy, and everyday people packing up their trucks and boats, putting their lives on hold to go to the aid of strangers. However, in showing our children news coverage that allows them to see these heroes in action, we must also share the devastating events that resulted in a need for heroes and that can be a difficult road to navigate.
My children are a bit older now, going into 5th and 6th grade, but I have made an effort for several years to keep them appropriately informed about tragic events happening in the news. Let’s face it, some unsupervised kid is going to say something inaccurate and even more upsetting than whatever the truth of the news might be and I’d frankly rather have more control over the facts and analysis my kids are getting, at least within their first impression. By opening up the conversation with your kids and allowing them to watch appropriate news stories and footage, they will be able to better understand what is happening, learn a bit about compassion, empathy, and sympathy, and begin learning how to prepare for future difficulties in their own lives.
If you’re struggling with how to talk to your kids in the wake of a tragedy or other news event that might be disturbing for them, here are a few tips:
- Monitor and filter news stories – Especially with breaking news, be careful to control you’re your children are visually taking in. Shield them from watching the most disturbing of events and simply verbally share these points in words that fully explain without creating irrational fears within them.
- Know your child – No one knows your child as well as you do, so watch for their reactions and cues to know when they have seen enough or when the conversation needs to take a different direction and follow them closely. Let their personal reactions drive the direction of the conversation.
- Get straight to the point – When starting a conversation about tragic or upsetting events, present them with a straight to the point, no-frills version of what is happening before showing them footage, sharing stories of heroes, and other things. Once you have gauged their initial reaction, you can better decide how much more information and exposure they need.
- Keep it age appropriate – This probably goes without saying, but be sure that the conversations you have and footage you show are things that your child can understand and process at their age and maturity level. You will very likely need to have a different conversation with your kindergartener than you have with your middle schooler.
- Let them take the lead – Kids will be looking for ways to relate to what is going on to help them understand the bigger picture. Give them the leeway to ask questions or to focus on a specific subtopic within the events. Ask them questions about their thoughts, feelings, and anxieties, but don’t pressure them to respond. And allow them to decide when they have had enough.
- Give them an option to help – Just as we try to combat our own feelings of helplessness in the face of a tragic situation, kids will feel the same desire to help others. Help them find ways to get involved in an act of kindness that will help those who are directly affected. Maybe they can help sort old clothes and toys to sell at a yard sale and donate the proceeds to the Red Cross. If they are animal lovers, they may want to use their allowance to purchase dog food or donate to a shelter in the area of the event.
- Keep communication lines open – Give them time to process the situation and don’t make the first conversation about what is happening the only one. Listen to their thoughts, fears, and anxieties and take care to not belittle any of their impressions and feelings. Be understanding and reassuring, giving them the comfort that they need.
It is so important for our children to understand more about what is happening around the world and it is our job as parents to guide that understanding. It is a difficult task to decide how much they should be exposed to and what they should be sheltered from, and we might not always get it just right. What works for you and your family may not be the way that another family handles things. And that is completely okay. In this and everything you do as a parent, give yourself some grace and simply do the best you know how to prepare your children to be sympathetic, caring members of the community.