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How to Talk to Kids About Scary News: Expert Tips for All Ages, from Toddlers to Teens

talking to kids serious topics
ExpertsPost Category - ExpertsExperts
ParentingPost Category - ParentingParenting - Post Category - Toddler & PreschoolerToddler & Preschooler - Post Category - Older KidsOlder Kids

Counsellors from schools across Singapore share tips on how to talk to kids about scary news in a reassuring and age-appropriate manner

The scary news cycle these days seems to be on overdrive: we started off 2020 with the Australian Bushfires; before we could catch our breath Britain Brexited the EU; and January wound down with the arrival of coronavirus (which has put a damper on February, to say the least, with no certain end in sight). There was also a volcano eruption in the Philippines; the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and 7 other people in a helicopter crash; and Iran accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane.

While all experts agree it’s best to talk to your kids about scary news rather than shield them, it’s crucial to do so in a manner that is both age-appropriate and ultimately reassuring. We talked to school counsellors at preschools and international schools in Singapore to get their age-appropriate advice on how to talk to kids about scary news.

Speak openly and honestly, and don’t hide the truth

When a tragedy occurs, it’s only natural that children may be confused or frightened. It’s important to share relevant and age-appropriate information so that they can understand and maintain a sense of safety and security, say Dr. Hana Ra Adams and Jennifer Maerz, who are school counsellors at GESS:

“Start by telling your child the truth. Don’t pretend that the event has not occurred or that it is not serious. Children will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening. For example, tell your child how flu-like illnesses are contracted so they know how to keep themselves safe.

“Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives, so try to avoid appearing anxious or frightened. Reinforce that your child and your family are safe. Point out factors that help ensure their immediate safety such as the temperature checks schools do in the morning to ensure everyone stays healthy.

A good first step, says Head of School Sarah Woon of Blue House Nursery & International Preschool, is to to ascertain what your child might already have heard about the topic at hand, and to work on clarifying misinformed or sensationalised details to ensure that your child has access to age-appropriate facts.

Open communication is key

“Let your children know it is okay to feel upset,” say the counsellors from GESS. “Encourage them to talk about their feelings so that you can help put them into perspective.  Many children do not express their concerns verbally, so keep a lookout for changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns. There is no right or wrong way to feel or express grief.”

mother child serious talk scary stuff

Talking to Preschoolers about Scary News

“We believe that children are capable, confident communicators who can handle very complex problems that face humanity. We should not protect them from information and talk to them as if they are not as intelligent as adults,” says Tina-Stephenson-Chin, Director of Pedagogy at EtonHouse, which takes a child-centered, Reggio-Emilia approach.

Parents should be sure to “respect the fact that [children] can understand, but do not make it a monologue or mini-lecture. Instead, acknowledge their questions, ask for their perspectives and keep the dialogue going back and forth.”

“Filtering through the information that your young preschooler has been presented with is an important process to ensure that the child’s impression of the situation does not become disproportionate to the facts,” says Sarah Woon from Blue House, where educators handle such discussions with sensitivity and work with parents to keep the narrative consistent and at a level that young children can cope with.

Filtering can include shielding your child from graphic images and disturbing media that presents tragic scenarios, she explains. After all, violent and gory images or sounds could lead to fear, instead of awareness. Very young children need to feel safe and know that discussions about a situation that’s given great attention does not compromise their sense of safety. In that respect, watching the news with your child by your side without providing you or your child the chance to decide what’s suitable for them, may do more harm than good.

Clare Lancaster, Educational Psychologist at Tanglin Trust School, has further helpful tips for helping parents put young children’s worried minds at ease:

“It’s important to remind children that they are safe and that adults are there to look after and protect them. They need to be reminded that most times, things go well and that when they don’t, there are lots of things that adults do to make things safer and better to help everyone who has been affected. It’s important to be factual, but not give too much information. Your child may have lots of “what if” questions (e.g. “What if the plane crashes?”). Answer these with a focus on safety, and some “What if it’s all ok?” questions of your own.

For example, “Even if a plane’s engine stops working, the pilots are very skilled and can land the plane safely by gliding it down. They know how to keep us safe. Here’s a question for you…what if the plane flies us there safely and comfortably and we have a lovely start to our holiday?”

Finally, suggests Tina Stephenson-Chin from EtonHouse, parents should try to “share information neutrally without being too dramatic, taking time to explain any new vocabulary to your child.” In fact you can even do research and read the news together, all the while encouraging your child to write down or verbalise their questions, findings and ideas.

For Primary & Middle School Kids 

The counsellors from GESS stress that at this age, it’s crucial that parents help separate reality from fantasy (and media sensationalism), and provide clear answers to questions, while continuing to provide reassurance.

Says Clare Lancaster, from Tanglin:

“It can be helpful to start talking about how we hear a lot of news about crashes, crises and disasters, but that is precisely because they are unusual, and that normally, everyone is safe from harm. It can be helpful to think about the things we do to stay safe – fire/lockdown drills, washing hands and temperature checks for illnesses etc – and remind your child that adults will always do their utmost to prevent any harm happening to them, or to help make things better.

For example, “We might hear a lot of news about a helicopter crash, but it is still generally considered to be safer than driving. It’s only being talked about a lot because it is so unusual and there’s a lot of focus on investigations which help make any flying safer.”

Or “We are hearing a lot about the coronavirus, but it is less dangerous than the normal flu. We just keep hearing about it, because everyone needs to work together to stop it from spreading.”

parenting talking to teens about scary news

For Older Kids and Teens

Clare Lancaster suggests that thinking about the broader picture can be helpful. For instance, hundreds of thousands of people lived within the “danger zone” of the Taal Volcano eruption in the Philippines, but only tens of thousands had to evacuate, and although still tragic, only four people died (and it was unclear if this was as a direct result of the volcano); the risk to life was therefore minimal.

The Australia bushfires have affected millions, but the number of people reported missing, injured or dead is a tiny percentage overall. Acknowledging that risk is real and present in our lives is important, but of equal importance is the fact that we can also take steps to minimise this and keep ourselves safe (for example, checking travel advice and following instructions of emergency crews).

She also suggests that if your child is worried about others (e.g. friends or relatives) who may be in a risky situation, reassure them that they are taking precautions and safety measures.

When talking to teens, Adams and Maerz acknowledge that students will have strong and varying opinions about threats to safety, whether in schools and society. This makes it vital that parents willingly talks about concrete suggestions about how to make school or their home safe. No matter what age kids are, it’s essential to encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings, and to always be a good listener!

Additional Parenting Resources

Blue House’s Sarah Woon suggests parents look to The American Academy of Pediatrics, which shares relevant tips on their website healthychildren.org in a piece entitled Talking to children about tragedies and other news events. She praises the article for “taking the fear factor out of broaching scary world problems, instead turning such discussions into opportunities to help children encounter ideas of agency and advocacy in their own way.”

Other resources for talking to kids about traumatic events and scary news:

ABC Australia: An Illustrated Guide to Coping with Traumatic News
Mental Health Foundation UK
Psychology Today

Thank you to the educators from Blue House Nursery & International Preschool, EtonHouse, GESS and Tanglin Trust School who all contributed to this article. 

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