Crime. Recession. Terrorism. Tsunamis. In our digital age, the news—much of it big, scary and confusing—is everywhere, all the time. And whether it's on television or radio, in print or online, tweens and teens are constantly exposed to disturbing stories, images and videos that can cause them to view the planet as a threatening, terrifying place. "On the one hand, we want our kids to know what's going on around them," says Michael Brody, M.D., chair of the television and media committee for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Problem is, the news is not rated. A lot of it is sensational, horror-story stuff, which means parents need to put things in perspective." Learn how to talk to your kids about current events, from natural disasters to politics to war, with these smart strategies. You'll calm their fears and help them make better sense of those screaming headlines. Plus, it's a starting point for a deeper, ongoing dialogue that will expand their minds and get them thinking about their role and responsibility in the real world.
Find an Opening
It may seem obvious, but you can't discuss the news with your kids until you're aware of exactly what they know. So the next time your tween or teen mentions a particular topic or event—at dinner, in the car, while watching TV—seize the moment and ask casually what she's heard about it. If need be, you can also initiate a conversation by saying something like "There's been a lot of coverage about those campus shootings. Are kids at school talking about it?"
Expressing an interest in what her friends are thinking is a good way to get her to open up, since adolescents are more likely to share thoughts and ideas that they've already discussed with peers. But don't be impatient if your child seems tight-lipped or flippant. "Sometimes teens don't ask questions—or they crack jokes about serious issues—because they're struggling with intense emotions like anger, anxiety or sadness but can't identify them," says Ernestine Briggs-King, Ph.D., a director at the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at Duke University. Parents, she suggests, can help kids sort things out by making supportive, encouraging comments such as "You keep bringing that subject up. How is it making you feel?"
Keep It Simple
Once you start talking, let your child determine the scope of the conversation. "When it comes to the news, the biggest mistake parents make is telling kids too much," says Brody. Teens, of course, are able to understand cause and effect, abstract ideas, and concepts like unpredictability and injustice, but too many specifics can overwhelm them. "It's like being on the witness stand in a trial," says Brody. "Don't blow your case by introducing things not in evidence. Just answer the questions."
If, for example, your son asks why everyone has to get a full-body screening at the airport, a short reply ("the government wants to keep everybody safe") will do. "Any more information—saying that someone could be carrying a gun, or there might be a terrorist with hidden explosives—would only frighten him needlessly," says Brody. Inquiring minds, however, may want to know more ("Could a water bottle really blow up a plane?" "Has that happened before?"). In that case, don't hesitate to respond, but stick to the facts (if you don't know them all, it's fine to say so) and adjust your answers to your child's level of understanding and interest.
Comfort As Needed
As sophisticated and tough as they may seem, today's kids are vulnerable—after all, they've grown up in a high-risk world where the threat of terrorism makes daily headlines. As a result, events like earthquakes, civil unrest or even soccer riots can trigger anxiety and unconscious fears. "In a tween's mind, something terrible happening across the globe could just as easily happen across the street," says Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, a California-based youth advocacy organization. Teens also still relate to the news, no matter where it occurs, in a personalized way. Kids who read about the war in Afghanistan, for example, might be concerned about its effects on people they know, or what the conflict means for their own future.
Encourage your child to talk about what upsets her. Acknowledge her feelings, and reassure her by sharing your own ("I'm also sad those people were hurt"). Be compassionate and calm, since kids look to parents for a reaction and will pick up on any anxiety. Above all, be honest. Point out that events like natural disasters can't be controlled. When discussing topics like crime and violence, don't say the world is perfectly safe, but do remind her of the steps people are taking to make it better. And sometimes kids just need you to help them pull back and put things in context. "Telling them that their chances of being affected by terrorism are about one in a zillion will mean nothing, but a statement such as 'A person is way more likely to be hurt in a car accident than by a terrorist attack' might actually lodge in a growing brain," says Lempert. "This approach accomplishes two things. First, it makes them think, Geez, I ride around in a car all the time and nothing bad usually happens. And second, Wow—I better be more careful driving."
Clear Up Confusion
When a major event happens, it's all too easy for kids to get the story wrong. They might hear half-truths from friends, glimpse a misleading headline or catch only the most sensationalist teaser on TV—and then start spreading the news. "Super-scary stories have enormous traction among tweens and teens because they're at an age when emotions are highly contagious," says psychologist Dave Walsh, Ph.D., author of (Free Press).
You can help prevent misconceptions by monitoring your kids' exposure to the headlines. Share the morning paper with them over breakfast, listen to informative programs on the radio or watch them together on TV. "But don't just come home and turn on the news, especially when a crisis has occurred," says Brody. That's when grim, often violent footage is replayed in a seemingly endless loop, and adolescents can develop an excessive fascination even though it scares them.
Walsh recommends that parents battle back with their kids' favorite tool—the Internet. "Tell your middle or high schooler to look up multiple sources of the story. Ask him to compare the conflicting information that is sure to come up, which version he decides to believe, and how he reached that conclusion," Walsh says. "That will spark a genuine conversation instead of shutting it down, which is often what happens when a parent says, 'Let's talk about so-and-so.'" From there you can broaden the lesson into one about the role and responsibility of news organizations. "Explain that media outlets want to grab our attention," says Walsh. "That's why they'll run a story about an abducted child over and over—it's an extraordinarily rare crime, but it's everyone's worst nightmare. Eventually kids will learn how to figure out the big picture and get to the truth of a story themselves. It's a golden opportunity."
When you think about it, kids find the news distressing for the same reasons adults do—a sense of helplessness in the face of suffering, and the feeling that so much in the world is beyond our control. Talking to your teens about underlying causes, the inevitability of conflict and natural disasters, and the resilience of the human spirit can ease their anxiety, but sometimes that can all feel terribly inadequate. "Fact is, news about bad stuff of any kind, no matter how far away, is unsettling," says Briggs-King. "But it's also true that kids feel better about themselves when they try to improve things."
Parents can help by suggesting ways their kids can step up, whether it's going green to combat global warming, sending relief supplies for victims of floods or quakes, or honoring those who've sacrificed their lives. "You can do a bake sale to support our troops abroad or round up toys for the children of military families," Briggs-King says. "It doesn't have to be big. Just doing something is tremendously empowering and helps kids feel more secure."
If you show empathy and encourage your kids to do the same, you'll both reap the benefits. "When it comes to talking about current events, what parents seem to want to do most is share their values," says Walsh. "It's not about forcing their beliefs on their children. They just want to get across why they think and feel the way they do. This is a chance to do that, and show them the ways all of us, no matter how scary the news, can make a difference."
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.