An Age-Appropriate Guide to Talking to Kids about Bad News

Today’s 24-hour news cycle ensures that the media is always churning out stories and updates on the violent tragedies and natural disasters here in the United States and around the globe. While knowledge is a powerful tool, children can easily become overwhelmed by the constant inundation of gloom and doom. Below are some age-appropriate coping strategies for talking to kids about the local and global headlines of the day.

Ages 6 to 10

Children in this age range need parents to be the buffer between them and the atrocities of the world. News of another school shooting or vicious tornado outbreak can undermine their sense of safety in their own schools and homes. Parents shouldn’t allow kids unfettered access to news featuring graphic violence.  That being said, once kids get into the double digits and get more mobile, it’s impossible to filter all the bad news.

Parents can alleviate anxious minds by stressing that their children are safe in their homes and in their schools. Fred Rogers, the soft-spoken gentlemen who hosted “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for over 30 years, addressed this issue by relating a pearl of wisdom from his mother. She told him when he worried over tragic events to focus on all the people rushing in to offer assistance following a disaster. This may offer reassurance to your children as well. Don’t overload them with more information than they require; keeping it simple at this age is usually best.

Ages 11-15

Kids in this age group will not be as easily mollified and will likely want more direct answers to their questions. It’s important to keep your responses honest, but still try to reassure them of their safety. Discussing context can be helpful — point out that while an air disaster may commandeer the news cycle, it’s far more statistically likely to be injured in a car accident than a plane crash, or that devastating tornado outbreaks are relatively rare in most areas of the country.

Be aware that the words you impart to your children affect their world view even more than today’s headlines ever can. If a horrific act of violence is perpetrated against a certain ethnic group by their attacker, this can be a good segue into how racism and prejudice are destructive forces that erode what is good inside the human heart. Explain how tolerance and acceptance foster good will in others’ hearts and can be a far more powerful tool.

Ages 16-20

At this age, teens and young adults are developing their own world views. It’s important that parents respect this independence. Your role now is less of a buffer and more of a sounding board. Your children may be deeply moved by a tragedy across the globe or even perhaps near your own home, and it’s important that they understand that their reactions of grief, shock, or horror are all normal. If they break down in tears, reassure them that it’s okay to cry. Taking concrete action is a good way to help them process their feelings. Encourage them to start a clothing drive for tornado victims or help rebuild housing. If violence erupted and people were shot, talk to them about ways to keep assault rifles or handguns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t own them.

As parents, one of the hardest things is to see children lose their innocence, but that, too, is a part of growing up. Your job is to help them navigate the shoals of life, remain optimistic about their futures, and retain the belief that the world is still full of good people from all walks of life.

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