As a child psychiatrist, I think the answer is located somewhere along a curve that’s specific to your child. We want our children to learn about life’s truths without blinders on and help shape their moral compass in a healthy way, without paralyzing them with fear and losing the lessons they need to learn.
While what works will look different for every family, here are 10 tips to help parents talk to their kids about alarming events.
1. Give your children the space to ask questions
The first step in opening a dialogue with your children is creating a safe space for it. That means remaining calm, nonjudgmental, and approaching the conversation with your listening hat on. Your children need room to share what they’re thinking and feeling. The dinner table is a great place to snag some uninterrupted time in a familiar environment.
The next step is meeting your kids where they are by asking what they already know. What have they seen on the news? What have they heard from friends? This allows you to fill in the gaps accordingly, without assuming that they know more or less than they really do. With teens who are typically on social media, it’s safe to assume they know more, but with younger kids it can be difficult to gauge. Ask them, and then listen.
Make sure your children know that it’s OK to ask questions. And remember that it’s OK to not have all of the answers to their questions.
2. Limit media exposure based on the age of your child
There can be a bit of a tension between shielding your children from real life versus exposing them to too much. By limiting media and social media exposure, you can avoid a flood of information that crosses the threshold of what’s too much for your child.
What can make it “too much”? Studies have shown that images can elicit stronger emotional reactions in children versus adults. Children also have a tendency to emulate what they see, a phenomenon that’s well studied. Talking together about what happened, instead, allows the information to be delivered to your child in a safer, more effective way.
Consider the age of the child. Toddlers and very young kids should not be watching any news at all. For kids in late elementary or middle school, gauge what they already know first, and keep their intake limited as much as you feel is appropriate. For older teens, who are likely talking to their friends about it and reading social media, limiting exposure may not be feasible. Instead, vet the news source first to get a sense of the narrative and watch the news with them so that you can process it together.
Social media is rife with bias and misinformation. Limiting it or encouraging older teens to limit it for themselves gives parents the opportunity to deliver the message of what happened in a developmentally appropriate way, without smoke and mirrors.
3. Reassure them that they’re safe
Whether it’s a hug or telling them that they’re safe and that you’re going to keep them safe, make it a priority to comfort your children before you dig into the tough stuff. Brains don’t work as well when stress and fear are high, releasing chemicals that cloud judgment, cognition and rational thinking. You want to make sure they’re in a state that’s calm and receptive to information so that the whole family can learn from what happened.
Younger kids tend to wonder if something bad is going to happen to them or to you. Reassuring them not only brings them peace; it allows them to feel like a kid where the burden of being the protector is on the parents. Kids need parents to be parents during times of crisis.
4. Be transparent and honest
Do not lie, do not sugarcoat, and do not be vague. For younger kids especially, there might be some things you choose not to share. It’s better not to say anything than to say something vague that leaves them confused and anxious. For what you do decide to share, be direct, yet calm. Kids can tell when you aren’t being honest.
Hearing the truth about the world that’s appropriately predigested (read: delivered in language that’s appropriate for them) by their parents is how kids learn about right and wrong and shape their own moral compasses. Keep in mind that with that comes immense responsibility, as what you think and say might influence them significantly for years to come.
5. Talk about bad actions, not bad people
Labeling people as “bad” or “good’ can be confusing, especially for younger kids. Talking about bad actions or behaviors instead can help highlight what you do and don’t condone without confusing your child. If you conflate the two, a child will likely internalize this and also conflate it later on — thinking that if someone does something bad, they are a bad person, instead of learning to reconcile the idea that one person might have good and bad actions. Keeping labels out of it can be helpful for this part of their development.
6. Highlight the helpers
There are typically a lot of helpers during times of crisis, and highlighting them can help instill hope for your child. It also helps keep the balance such that your child is not left with only negative memories about the world and people outside of their immediate world. It can bring comfort to know that a lot of people are dedicated to helping keep us all safe.
7. Name your feelings
This is an opportunity for parents to teach kids emotional literacy — the ability to recognize, read or name your own emotions. By naming what you are feeling, whether it’s outraged, upset, sad, scared or something else, we teach kids how to name their own feelings and teach them a language that they may not already have. Some children may not know what they are feeling, or if they do recognize the feeling, they may not have the accurate vocabulary for it. By modeling naming the feelings yourself, you’re giving them tools that will serve them throughout their lives — all the while sending the message that having big feelings is OK.
8. Keep your own feelings in check
Seeing your parents in distress is scary, no matter how old you are. By keeping your own feelings under wraps, you’ll prevent the restless energy from spilling over to your kids. This is where self-care comes into play, whether it’s even a short walk, reading a book, taking your own breaks from the news or doing a workout class. By engaging in these activities, you’ll reduce your stress hormones and anxiety levels, in turn helping dial levels of these down for your kids, too.
9. Teach healthy coping skills
This is a great opportunity to model navigating big feelings through the practice of healthy coping skills. Try deep breathing exercises, which settle your nervous system, or exercise or music, both of which release feel-good chemicals in the brain. The more your kids see you manage your feelings, the more they will learn to manage their own.
It’s also a good time to maintain as much structure and routine as possible — including regular mealtimes, scheduled activities and usual bedtime routines, so that kids feel a sense of control in an otherwise scary, unpredictable environment. Regular family rituals like eating dinner together every night or sharing gratitude lists each morning can bring meaning and comfort during uncomfortable times.
10. This is a springboard for tough conversations
We should not pretend everything is fine or that nothing scary happened. Instead, use the breaking news as a springboard from which to have conversations on tough topics. Talk about racism, so that kids aren’t left utterly confused as to why some people get arrested or beaten and others are told peacefully to go home. Name what happened and call it out. Talk about injustices.
Younger, school-age kids are very focused on rules. When rules are broken or inconsistent, it can be confusing to them. Explain that some people don’t follow rules, but emphasize your family’s values and what you think is right versus wrong.
These conversations can segue into more positive discussions about how we each contribute to society and what kids can do when they are older. It’s an opportunity to recognize the responsibility that comes with freedom of speech, and how we can use our voices for good. By leaning into these conversations, you not only push your child’s thinking and development — their creative thoughts or ideas might surprise you.