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How to Talk to Your Kids About the News

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Illustration by Ronald J. Cala

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."