With news stories so accessible on TV, cell phones, tablets, and other media, children are frequently informed on all sorts of topics, sometimes without parental discretion. While children may learn about compassion and forgiveness from uplifting news stories, researchers, such as Dr. Barbara J. Wilson, have shown that negative news stories may contribute to children’s emotional upsets.
Parents are powerful guides who can help children gain socially and emotionally from the positive aspects of the news and can also model emotion regulation when their child is faced with its more negative aspects.
Here’s how you can talk with children about news events.
Let your child know you are always available to talk about what is going on in the news. In fact, you and your child can set up a daily ritual of discussing the news, whether it’s good or bad. Doing this while sitting down with a cup of hot chocolate (or any “feel good” snack) is a wonderful way to introduce a positive parent-child interaction each day. Parents can begin a dialogue with a brief synopsis of current events. They can then ask their child if there is something he wants to know more about or have explained. If so, stick to pointedly answering follow-up questions or clarifying. Adding on or digressing may confuse your child.
Use news events to teach children about their positive and negative emotions. However children are affected by a news event, validate their emotional experience without minimizing or judging it. Much of the time, children can recognize that they are upset, but they can’t label their emotions. Asking them to identify how they feel may be more frustrating to them than helpful. Try not to guess or assume how your child is feeling. You can point out to your child that he looks or sounds upset, but telling him how he feels is invalidating.
Be a positive coping model for your child. You can disclose to your child how you may feel after hearing about a news item, but tell him that not everybody feels the same way about such topics. Sharing how the news affects you and labeling your feelings is a great way to teach your children how to label their own emotions. As children get older, they often gain the insight to recognize their own emotional state. If your child tells you exactly how he’s feeling, one way you can show him you understand is to restate what he said.
Monitor your child’s emotional reactions to the news. According to Dr. Wilson, children will react with fear and anxiety when the news is particularly threatening. If parents recognize mild levels of distress, they can demonstrate calm breathing or relaxation techniques. With younger children, for example, parents can practice calm breathing by blowing bubbles with them. When they hear upsetting news, children may initially feel helpless. Having them run for a cause or help clean up a neighborhood can teach your children to be resilient. Look for verbal and nonverbal cues that may signal extreme reactions, such as a child refusing to participate in family or social events or not wanting to sleep alone. If these behaviors occur, it may be wise to put a limit on the amount of exposure to the news where possible. If you are concerned with your child’s emotional state after a news event, you can find something to do with your child that is distracting, such as taking a walk, drawing, singing and dancing, even watching a funny video. When an upsetting event doesn’t personally affect the child, you can reassure him that everything is okay with his loved ones and that nothing has changed for him. Any parent who is concerned about their child’s reactions should consult with a mental health practitioner.