Helping your child cope with bad world news

What do you do when your child feels anxious following a terrorist attack that happened halfway across the world? How do you respond to a teen distressed by violent crimes such as abuse or murder?

By Divya Sainathan

Helping your child cope with bad world news

One day, Rohini found her nine-year-old daughter badly shaken when she came home from school. Upon some questioning, she learned that the school had conducted an awareness session for its students on MoMo Challenge, an online game that targeted children. The game had been in the news for pushing some children to self-harm and suicide in parts of Asia, Europe, and South America. Considering the widespread use of cell phones among children, the police in several states had issued an advisory to schools to caution children against the game. Some of the children attending the session were deeply disturbed upon hearing how the game played out.
"It put the fear of death in my daughter. She didn't want to use her mobile phone after that," Rohini said.
A child felt vulnerable, threatened, and at risk of mortal danger after hearing a talk about a game. To her, the threat was clear, imminent, and deeply personal. She began to feel unsafe around an everyday object, the mobile phone. Such is the effect of unsettling news on a child’s psyche.

Rohini’s experience is not an isolated incident. Even if we manage to dodge 24-hour news channels, social media updates, mobile notifications, and video streaming, distressing news of the world wheedles its way into our child’s life.

Media coverage of negative news
News is a competitive business. News coverage sharply inclines towards the negative, with far more time and space dedicated to disasters and violence than to reassuring and uplifting stories. Relentless, sensational coverage of traumatic events can expose our children to a wide range of unsettling news:

  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, cyclones, drought, and wildfires
  • Man-made disasters such as war, environmental degradation, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, stampedes, etc.
  • Violent crime such as rape, murder, exploitation or abuse
  • Problems such as poverty, suicide, discrimination based on race, gender, caste or religion
  • Accidents, petty crime, animal rights violations

An extreme event may be happening on the other side of the world, but media coverage brings it right into our homes. A child could get the impression that an international event is happening very close to them. They could be filled with anxiety, wondering "Why is this happening? How to make it stop?”

Radhika Anand watched the Brazilian Amazon rainforest burn on TV. Sitting with her were her two daughters, a kindergartener and a teenager. Radhika, herself a kindergarten teacher based in Bangalore, observed how differently her children reacted to the same event: ‘My elder one was exasperated by the greed and the lackadaisical approach of the government while my younger one was worried that we’ll not be able to breathe.’
Since the news was about an environmental disaster, Radhika took the opportunity to discuss sustainability and conservation with her children. She built on their existing knowledge base and their angle of interest in the news story.
"My younger daughter has learnt about parts of the body at school. She understood the significance of trees and, by extension, the Amazon rainforest as ‘lungs’ that clean the air we breathe. For her, the most important aspect of the news was—what can we do to make it better. I told her that we need to stop cutting trees, plant more trees, produce less waste and use resources such as water and electricity with care. She has always been conscious about turning off taps and fans and lights when not in use. This only strengthened her conviction," said Radhika while speaking to ParentCircle.
For Radhika’s elder daughter, the burning Amazon rainforest was proof of government corruption and apathy. ‘She felt this anger and frustration and wanted to lash out. I couldn’t give her much in terms of information, since she read up a lot on her own. What we had, instead, was a discussion on government culpability and accountability.’ The discursive approach allowed the teenager to express her feelings and then have a calm and rational conversation.

While some news stories can be teaching opportunities, others such as violent crime and social evils can be deeply unsettling and challenging to manage.

Tracing the source of news
Children could actively seek information on a news story, or they could accidentally stumble upon a disturbing story. Knowing how children learn about a news item can help us gauge the nature and extent of news coverage and exposure. Most children come across news stories on TV or through the internet. Devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones have brought news to our fingertips. Traditional media such as newspapers and radio continue to provide news. Children can also hear about news from relatives, friends, peers or even teachers.

While we can restrict viewing of news by younger children, older children could be driven to seek forbidden news in secret. They could watch distressing news content without the parent’s active mediation, guidance or explanation. Parents need to monitor and actively mediate their child’s exposure to news coverage as much as possible.

Impact of negative world news
When adults can feel unsafe, disillusioned and desensitized by the barrage of negative news coverage, imagine the plight of children who are not mature enough to comprehend the depth and context of events. A 2016 American study titled ‘Mental and Emotional Health of Children Exposed to News Media of Threats and Acts of Terrorism: The Cumulative and Pervasive Effects’ argued that even indirect exposure to extreme violence and terrorism through media could adversely affect the mental and emotional health of children. 

Children of all ages can be affected emotionally by unsettling national and international news. Their reactions can range from fear and anxiety to anger and guilt. A study conducted jointly by the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School looked into how the extensive media coverage of the 9/11 attacks impacted children. It concluded that indirect exposure to tragic events through media viewing was enough to produce post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in children. The greater the viewing, the greater the risk of PTSD.

The 2016 American study noted that continuous viewing of threatening images and violent acts can lead to elevated stress levels over a long period of time. This can significantly hamper a child’s cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, chronic and persistent exposure to violent news can lead to fear and desensitization. It can also trigger aggressive and violent behavior in some children.

Helping children cope
Aayushi Srinivasan, a Hyderabad-based psychologist who works extensively with children, says, ‘Parental instincts are to shield their children from any news they consider harmful to them. And this judgment is largely subjective.’

We can keep our children away from the news, but we cannot keep the news away from our children all the time. We can, however, guide how our children process the news and what they take away from it. Much depends on how we frame news items that upset our children and how we help them come to terms with what they learn. While our approach is best informed by careful consideration of the child’s age and temperament, and the type of news event in question, here are some things we can do in any situation: 

  • Thoroughly research news items so that your knowledge is up-to-date and you have a clear idea of how you feel about an event.
  • Do not dismiss the child’s emotions. Assure them that what they feel is natural. Comfort and soothe them before starting a conversation about the news.
  • Remain calm and rational while helping children navigate a serious subject. Avoid impassioned discussion in their presence. Children take their cues from us. So, role model calm, assuring, rational behavior and reactions to news.
  • Explain how news coverage tends to focus on sensational aspects and repetitive display of stirring images. Events are not shown in entirety and not all kinds of events are covered.
  • Find positives—talk about heroes in a situation, fighting spirit of people, unity in the face of adversity, and the kindness of strangers. Make them think about what they can do and how they can contribute.
Helping your child cope with bad world news

Radhika’s experience with her daughters shows that children process news differently—based on their developmental stage and their own interests and temperaments. An understanding of these will help parents formulate an age-appropriate response. It will determine the lens of our dialogue with our child. And when we actively watch out for cues of distress, we take the first step in responsive care. Let us look at how news ‘speaks’ to children of different age groups and what this translates to, for parents.

Preschoolers (3 to 5 years)
With preschoolers, everything boils down to how something affects them and their family. In addition, preschoolers take what they hear quite literally, exactly as it sounds. They don’t understand causality, context or abstract ideas. But they are excellent at sniffing out mood and grasping their parents’ state of mind.

According to Aayushi, preschoolers can go through an entire range of emotions in a single minute. ‘Their cognitive structure is still developing. They process information very differently from adults. They are great at observing, but are yet to learn expression. When they are exposed to violent content without their consent or against their will, they could experience childhood trauma.’

When preschoolers are distressed, it is important to make them feel safe and loved. Here’s what you can do to ensure your preschooler doesn’t get frightened or upset by news content:

  • Keep news at bay: Be mindful of what you watch, listen to or read in front of a preschooler. They have vivid imagination and can get scared easily. Plan your viewing, reading and discussion after their bedtime. Don’t bring anything up unless they have already heard about it.
  • Reassure them that your family is safe: Explain to them that you are there to take care of them, that your home is safe, that nothing will happen to them, and that there are people (law enforcement/emergency personnel) who are in control of the situation and will take care of the problem. This works well for natural disasters such as cyclones or floods.

Get down to their eye level, use a soothing tone, reinforcing the message verbally and non-verbally. Hugging and cuddling, and doing a cheerful activity together can also help your child calm down and feel protected.

  • Keep the explanation simple and straightforward: Take some time to think about the news event and condense it into a ‘one-line story’ with simple words and expressions known to the child. Describe feelings using basic terms such as ‘sad’, ‘hurt’, ‘mad’, ‘bad’, ‘happy’, ‘scared’, etc. Answer their questions honestly as much as possible, without overwhelming them with information.
  • Allow them to express their feelings: Ask questions to check their understanding of the topic. Try to gain an insight into what their main concern/fear is. Validate their feelings, saying it’s normal to feel that way and that you yourself have had similar feelings.

Primary school children (6 to 12 years)
Primary schoolers can read and write, which dramatically increases their chances of coming into contact with age-inappropriate content. The younger among them have trouble telling reality apart from fantasy or pretend. The older kids, on the verge of puberty, are likely to explore mature content independently. All middle schoolers are capable of asking probing questions and understanding complex subjects when they are explained age-appropriately with context.

While discussing difficult news events with middle schoolers, parents have an opportunity to lay the foundation for critical thinking and explain the basics of privilege, prejudice, bias and discrimination based on race, religion, class, and gender. Here are some things parents can do to help middle schoolers process disturbing news content:

  • Ask questions and listen actively: What have you heard? How do you feel about this? What would you like to know? These questions can be used to ascertain what the child is thinking about, where they got their information from, what their most pressing concern is, and how to fill the gaps in their knowledge and thinking.
  • Be available for discussion: Children must feel they can approach you to talk about anything, even subjects they stumbled across in a questionable or embarrassing manner. It is important to break taboos and let the kids know that some topics are difficult to talk about even for adults, but you are willing to sit down and sort such things out with them. Children could come across threatening content while they were just being curious. In such cases, we can redirect them to more objective, sensitive, and credible sources of information. For example, books on biology and sexuality instead of online pornography
  • Provide context, filter content: Children in this age-group think about the likelihood of something they see on the news happening to them. It is important to reassure them that is unlikely, through contextual information such as where (near or far) an event is taking place, who are the people directly involved and any social, psychological or economic conditions specific to the event. It is also important to review where children get their news from. If it is from their peer group, we may have to bust myths and set rumours right with some facts. If it is from the internet, we may have to monitor our child’s surfing and restrict access to some websites.
  • Encourage critical thinking: Ask open-ended questions to make your child think more deeply about a subject. They can also be asked to ponder upon how different sections of the society perceive the same bit of news.

‘No vagueness, no dumbing down. Children prefer clarity. That makes it easier for them to compartmentalize information. And instead of kids finding out about news indirectly, it is best for them to have a familiar person explain things to them,” says Aayushi of middle schoolers.

Teens (13 to 18 years)
Teenagers proactively and independently seek news content. They have a fairly good understanding of context. They can grasp abstract ideas. They can form strong opinions and react emphatically, including expressing themselves online. Since the teen-news interaction is two-way, the parent-teen conversation must be the same.

  • Have an open discussion: Encourage children to voice their thoughts without any fear or inhibition. Show them that you are willing to listen to their perspective even though you may not agree with it. Teach them to express themselves politely and have informed debates.
  • Guide their developing value system: Teenagers are in the process of developing their identities, political views, and their sense of justice and morality. News stories give us the opportunity to talk to them about right and wrong, privilege and discrimination, inequality in society, etc. We can share our own values with them without imposing.
  • Promote critical thinking: Ask open-ended questions that make them think about different aspects of events and issues. Show them how to gather and interpret information. Push them to cross-check their news sources. Encourage them to defend their point of view. Motivate them to question everything they see or hear. Introduce them to some of the debates concerning journalism—sensationalism, privacy, bias in reporting (racial, political, gender, class), competition and profits, balance and objectivity, fake and paid news, customised news feeds on social media, etc.
  • Encourage problem solving: Ask them what they would do in a given situation. Explore emergency response protocols, self-defence techniques, and identifying and avoiding dangerous situations. Show them some avenues through which they can actively participate in an issue and be a part of the solution. It could be through volunteering or by joining a march, donating things, signing a petition, making lifestyle changes, etc.

Recent American research (CommonSense Media, 2017) has found that most children trust news from their family than any other source. While no such data exists on Indian children, we can take heart from the fact that parents matter the most when it comes to children’s perception of news. This is a great opportunity as well as a tremendous responsibility.

News is made for adult consumption. Media platforms do not factor in how children experience news. And as the most important adults in the life of our children, the onus is on us to ensure they acquire the emotional and critical skills required to process news, particularly when it comes to threatening, divisive or disturbing events. In today’s connected world, it is impossible to insulate our children from world news. By arming them with knowledge, sensitivity and integrity, we can help them become strong, independent and compassionate individuals. As Radhika Anand puts it, we can raise kids who are ‘considerate to themselves, others and the environment.’

In a Nutshell

  • It is difficult to shield children from news in these times of pervasive, invasive information explosion
  • Children can be distressed even by indirect exposure to tragic events through news coverage
  • Children process news differently and have differing parental expectations based on their age, temperament, and the type of news story they are exposed to
  • Parents should have age-appropriate conversations with their children about what they see or hear. They must help their children discern real and complete news from rumours, misinformation and partial stories

What you can do right away

  • Monitor the websites that older children surf, give them access to news sites that publish age-appropriate content
  • Actively look out for cues of distress—changes in your child’s behaviour
  • Role-model calm reaction and good coping behaviours
  • Try to end all discussions on a positive note, with some hope

About the author:
Written by Divya Sainathan on 1 December 2019.
Divya is a writer and editor with a special interest in early childhood education.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 11 December 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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