Talking to Kids About Tragedies in the News

The first news coverage I remember registering consciously, was that surrounding Gulf War I in 1991 and seemingly simultaneously, something about Ukraine – probably the five-year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I remember, because I thought at the time that Iraq, Iran and Quwait together formed Ukraine. I was five-years-old and didn’t have a clue about tragedies. Maybe I did ask questions, and maybe I was worried, as I often was later on when famine or disease in developing countries was discussed.

I was fifteen when 9/11 took place. I realized by this time that America was far away, so I didn’t feel any sadness or anxiety. Children in America, however, even those not directly impacted, often felt intense sadness and worry. Now a large tragedy didn’t impact my country when I was young – the largest tragedy affecting the Netherlands during my childhood was probably the Bijlmer airplane crash in 1992, which killed 43 people. Children of today, however, have to cope with a tragedy that is almost comparable in size to what 9/11 was for the U.S., ie. the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, which was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur last Thursday when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and flight personnel, including 193 Dutchpeople. Adults, at least those who’ve not lost family or friends, can put this tragedy into perspective, although with 9/11 in mind, even I am worried for its consequences. Children cannot do this. How do you help children cope with a tragedy like the MH17 crash?

I am focusing here on helping children not directly impacted by a tragedy. If a child has lost a family member or friend in a tragic way, they need extra help coping with the loss of a loved one as well as with the trauma of a tragedy like an accident or shooting. You can, however, reassure children who aren’t directly impacted that they are safe. In a book on coping with trauma I own, adult survivors of trauma are taught that the world isn’t safe, but it won’t get any more or less safe by worrying about it. That is not an effective strategy with non-traumatized children. They need to know that you as the parent, teacher or other adult in their life are there to protect them.

Common Sense Media advises keeping the news away from kids under seven. Preschoolers and Kindergartners are not ready to understand the news and will easily confuse fact with fantasy or fear. My parents had the radio on all the time when I was young, so I registered the Chernobyl and Gulf War news, but made really irrational connections. That being said, the Mayo Clinic recommends that parents do talk about tragedies to their kids, since they’ll likely have picked up on the news somehow anyway.

When kids get older, they start to hear about news tragedies or events from their friends. They still may see news as closer to home or more common than it is, particularly if kids are sensitive. Children between seven and twelve may still make logical errors. For example, a child might worry about their family in Amsterdam because flight MH17 took off there.

At elementary school age, you may start to explain the context of news, especially if your child is intellectually and emotionally mature. You might explain that people have different views and that news programs compete for viewers. You can also start to explain the basics of political or religious conflict. At this point, kids have a strong sense of right and wrong, in the sense that it is all-or-nothing. Therefore, you should be careful not to generalize.

When a child becomes a teen, they will likely start finding the news on their own, without your supervision. Discussing the news with them will give you as the parent a good insight into their developing knowledge and maturity. Common Sense Media says that teens will understand that their lives could’ve been impacted by such tragedies as terrorist attacks. Therefore, it is important to discuss their views and reassure them without dismissing their feelings. They may also want to help people directly affected.

Above all, when talking to a child about a tragedy, the Mayo Clinic recommends telling the truth. Explain the basics and don’t go into too much detail. Avoid speculation on what might be the consequences of the tragedy. Listen carefully to your child for misconceptions, misinformation or underlying fears. Reassure them that you are there for them to keep them safe. If your child asks the same question repeatedly, it’s possible that they just need reassurance.

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17 thoughts on “Talking to Kids About Tragedies in the News

  1. Excellent post and something that is sadly all too relevant to children today. I find it hard to watch the news but try to answer my children’s questions as honestly as possible.

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  2. As usual, a great post with lots of interesting points. I agree that telling the truth to children when they ask about such things is important but only give as much information as you deem necessary for each individual child.

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  3. It is hard to accept tragedy in life. My son gets very anxious with news like this. I always tell him that no matter what happens, God is always there with the people. He is the one we can always trust.

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  4. Even as a child I read the daily newspapers that were delivered to our house so I knew all the news. I remember when I was about eight my mother waking me up to tell me about the Brighton bombing. I don’t hide anything from my daughter and answer her questions truthfully.

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  5. This is something I was thinking about today just as I was reading the news about Gaza. I wondered how one puts this in perspective for children when I myself am trying to get to grips with it. I especially think the Common Sense Media tip about keeping the news away from under 7s is an important one. They’re just not ready for it.

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  6. I keep the news away from my little ones – I don’t think that it’s something that they need to know, I’d rather protect their innocence as long as I can. With the older one, if she asks then I answer honestly

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  7. I’m very [open with my children and we have quite interesting discussions about the news as they have very definite opinions on what’s right and wrong. They can’t get their head around war though – they just don’t understand why the ‘important’ people can’t just compromise rather than fight x x

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    1. That’s totally normal for kids – and really, should adults be able to understand war? As a teen, I used to ponder what the important people, like the “big fish” of the former Yugoslavia genocide, were like when they were kids.

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  8. Brilliant post! I too believe in being honest with your child, and tailoring the information to suit their age and understanding.

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  9. My children are 2 and 4 so it’s not something I have thought about yet. I feel like I want to protect them for as long as possible but I also want to be a realist – I shall have to think about this!

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  10. We watch news round here which is a child friendly version of the news. If the kids want to ask questions they do and I try and answer them honestly but will filter out some facts first

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  11. What a great post. Max is too young to understand the news at the moment but I think we will try and protect him as he grows older. Its not a nice world we live in these days, always horrible things happening.

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