Between social media, TV and playground chatter, it’s impossible for parents to completely shield their young children from the world’s tragedies – and that’s OK. Assistant Professor of Transmedia Storytelling and youth studies expert Tara Conley explains there are ways to handle discussions with children who have questions about difficult things they see or overhear from the news.
Keep these tips in mind the next time your child is exposed to a news event they may not fully understand.
Ask what they know and what they want to know
When you notice your child is scared by something they saw or heard on the news, take time to ask them what they’re feeling, what details they know about the event and how it makes them feel. In a 2020 interview on the NPR podcast Life Kit, Conley said it’s important to give kids an opportunity to share what’s on their mind.
“Allowing them to have that space, where they’re asking questions about what they’re seeing, how they’re feeling, what do they think – you know, who do they think the story is talking about?”
Focus on the positive
When a tragic event occurs, a news story may focus on unsettling details such as casualties. But when that feels like too much for your child to process, take a page from the Mister Rogers handbook: “Look for the helpers.”
“Our natural instinct is to find those that are the antagonists in that story,” Conley said on Life Kit. “But who are the ones around us that are actually helping us get through this? Who are the ones that, you know, save the lives of young people at that moment? That’s where we should focus.”
There’s an opportunity to make it a teaching moment, too. “In talking with our children, we also have to show them how we’re helping too, and asking them, what do you – how do you see yourself as a helper in these situations?”
Encourage kids to use their creativity to process news
Whether it’s creating a drawing, posting a YouTube video, or even recording music, there’s a bevy of ways young children can use their creative skills as an outlet to make sense of what they see or hear on the news.
Allow them to tap in to the emotions they’re feeling, and encourage them to reconstruct their own stories through play and imagination, says Conley. This is especially helpful when there’s a flood of information coming in.
Teach your child about news vs. opinion
Depending on their level of understanding, having a conversation about a scary news event could also be a good opportunity for a parent to teach their child about how to distinguish between news and opinion.
In a 2021 interview with WCCO CBS Minnesota following the January 6 riot at the Capitol, Conley said children should learn where different information comes from.
“Acknowledge there are political viewpoints that are always going to be at odds with one another and they should be able to know how to spot them.”
Finally – and this piece of advice is just for the parents – it’s OK if you don’t have all the answers at once. Just you listening may be enough.
To speak with Tara Conley, contact Montclair State University Media Relations.