Talking With Kids About News Events< < Back to
Brought to you by PBS Parents: Talking about the news with kids happens in everyday moments. Children ask questions in the car on the way to school, in between pushes on the swings, and just when you're trying to rush out the door. In one breath, they'll ask about a range of topics — from the weather to the president to the latest war. And when difficult questions come up, parents wonder how to respond.
To help the conversation along, this article offers flexible suggestions for answering kids' questions about the news. There is no script to follow but these strategies can help you tune in to what your child is thinking and feeling and talk it through together.
Start by finding out what your child knows. When a news topic comes up, ask an open-ended question to find out what she knows like "What have you heard about it?" This encourages your child to let you know what she is thinking.
Ask a follow up question. Depending on your child's comments, ask another question to get him thinking, such as "Why do you think that happened?" or "What do you think people should do to help?"
Explain simply. Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough. "A good analogy is how you might talk about sex," adds Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed. D. "You obviously wouldn't explain everything to a 5-year-old. Talking about violence and safety is similar."
Listen and acknowledge. If a child talks about a news event (like a local robbery or kidnapping) and is worried,recognize her feeling and comfort her. You might say "I can see you're worried, but you are safe here. Remember how we always lock our doors." This acknowledges your child's feelings, helps her feel secure, and encourages her to tell you more.
Offer reassurance. When a child is exposed to disturbing news, she may worry about her safety. To help her calm down, offer specific examples that relate to her environment like, "That hurricane happened far away but we've never had a hurricane where we live." Actions speak louder than words — so show your child how you lock the door if she gets scared by a news report about robbers, point out the gutters and storm drains if a hurricane story causes fear, and explain what the security guards do at the airport after a story about terrorists.
Tailor your answer to your child's age. The amount of information children need changes age by age. "A kindergartner may feel reassured simply knowing a hurricane is thousands of miles away. An older child may want to know how hurricanes could affect the place where he lives and may want to know what is being done to help those in need. Both ages will be reassured by doing something to help," notes Jane Katch, M.S.T., author of Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play.
Pay attention to your feelings. Children will look to you for a reaction, so it's important to discuss how an event makes both of you feel. For example, if your child asks you about people being injured in a tsunami or other natural disaster, you might say, "I feel sad those people got hurt. Would you like to do something to help?" They will also pick up on your anxiety, which can be contagious.
Clear up confusion. At times, children get misinformation from friends or don't understand all the words in a news story. If this happens, it's important to address the confusion in a non-judgmental way. If a 5-year-old hears a news report about a plane carrying bombs, she might ask 'Do all airplanes have bombs?'. And that's both a factual question and perhaps something she is worried about," says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed. D. "In response you might say, 'No, just some planes carry bombs, but not the planes our family goes on.'" The point is not to "correct" children's statements and make them feel wrong, but instead to add information to clear up misunderstandings.
Discuss your child's interpretation. Children often view the world in simplistic terms — everything is good or bad, black or white — but leave little room for gray. Rather than telling a child she is wrong, or correcting her with your own right answer, try asking specific questions. This encourages your child to elaborate on her ideas, make connections and become a critical, independent thinker. "Her ability to think through it herself will also help her contain and diminish anxiety," says Susanna Neumann, Ph.D., a psychotherapist who worked with families affected by 9/11.
Talk again. Be prepared for children to ask the same question many times. This means they are continuing to think about the issue and may need more information. You might save some information for later discussions.
Extend the learning. Talking about the news provides spontaneous opportunities for learning. "For example, if you're discussing storms and hurricanes, you can look at maps to point out where events are occurring and discuss the causes. Together, you can learn about geography, science, and where you live," says teacher Jane Katch.
At every age and stage, children are affected by what's happening in the news, whether parents share this information or shield them from it — because the news is everywhere.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Study, today's families are watching a lot of TV. 65% of today's children live in homes where the TV is on half the time, and in 36% of homes, the TV is on all the time. This study also points to research stating that TV in the background has an impact on children because "the content is not designed for them."
How many hours a day children are watching the news has not been definitively researched, but news exposure is clearly having an impact. Even if parents keep the TV news off around young children (as experts recommend) the news can still be seen at the supermarket, in a doctor's waiting room, or at a friend's house. Therefore it's not surprising that teachers are reporting that children as young as five are talking about the news — and see news events reflected in their play at school.
Because the news has saturated our daily lives, experts recommend you develop age-appropriate ways to talk about it with kids. While these conversations will be somewhat limited with younger children, experts recommend that you discuss the news in a more detailed way with older children. To help out, this article offers age-customized pointers for discussing the news with suggestions on how much (or how little) news they should be watching.