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How Do I Explain Scary News to My Child?

The world can be a frightening place, and it seems like every night, there’s another terrible story on the news. Whether you have little kids or older children, it’s natural to worry about how those stories affect them. Even if you don’t allow your kids to watch the news at home, it’s still likely that they’re at least hearing about tragedies and terrible events.

Knowing how to handle scary news with your kids is challenging. On one hand, you don’t want to scare or scar them, but on the other hand, you don’t want them to be completely sheltered – or to get incorrect information from their friends or the internet. You’ve probably wondered:

  • How do I explain scary news to my child?

  • Which steps can I take to help my child process what they see on TV?

  • Is there a good way to talk about scary issues with older kids?

In HelloJoey’s “Screens Without Screams” kit, we discuss the importance of monitoring your child’s exposure to media, both in terms of quantity and content. We also share tips from the experts on how to handle upsetting news stories with your kids and how you can use media to help them process what’s happening in their lives.

How to handle scary news with little kids

While terror attacks and earthquakes are scary for you, imagine how frightening they are for young children. Their little brains may not fully understand what’s happening, but when they hear words like “disaster” or “explosion,” they know that something is very wrong. The images that accompany these types of stories can make the situation even worse, leaving smaller children terrified that “bad guys” are going to get them or bad things are going to happen.

To help little kids process scary news they see on TV, experts recommend co-viewing with active mediation. That means you watch something with your kids and talk about it before, during, and after. Of course, no one is suggesting you deliberately expose your child to graphic or violent news, but it’s likely your child will see or hearing something about a scary event, even in passing. Talking about these events can put them into context, and watching a story or clip that you’ve pre-viewed may allow you to reframe the situation in a way that’s appropriate for your child.

Dr. Melissa Camacho, an expert in mass media, explains. “A parent can help a child understand what it is that they're watching or listening to and then can have a conversation about what that means within the context of their own lives. We live in a world right now where children may be exposed to things like gun violence and political drama, but they don't really understand it. Having someone mediate that experience with them could contextualize it in a way that can help them understand what's happening around them.”

Dealing with scary news and older kids

Older kids usually have a fuller understanding of what’s happening when they see a natural disaster or violent event on the news – but that isn’t necessarily better. Watching the aftermath of a terror attack or a hurricane can leave older children feeling unsettled and unsafe. While you may not always co-view with an older child, there are times when they still need active mediation. Talking about a tragic event gives your child the chance to ask questions and gives you the chance to clear up any confusion and offer your reassurance.

With older kids, parents also can use media to help them process some of the things that are happening in the world. Caroline Knorr uses co-viewing the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, about a high school student who commits suicide, as an example. “A show like 13 Reasons Why could be a great opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about mental health issues, anxiety, social lives, and how social media can impact a kid's world. These are great ways that parents can interact.”

The older we get, the more complex the world seems – and the same goes for our kids. Talking about scary news and using media as a way to help them process some of the things happening in the world can strengthen your relationship. It also can give you a window into how they’re doing and what guidance they may need.

App Tip

Next time you see something terrible on the news, remember that your kids have probably seen it, too. Take some time to discuss the event, watch it together if it’s appropriate, answer any questions your kids have, and figure out how they feel. Little kids might need a lot of reassurance – and older kids might, too, even if they pretend they’re un-phased.

In HelloJoey’s “Screens Without Screams” kit, we provide the latest research and expert recommendations to help you make informed choices about your children’s exposure to media and screens.

You’ll learn how to:

  • choose quality content based on the four pillars of learning

  • create a media plan for the whole family

  • use screens to teach your family values

Want to learn more about “Screens Without Screams?”  Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.

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