Parenting

How to Talk to Your Kids About Scary Events in the News

written by CARMEN GARCIA-SHUSHTARI

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Source: Ivan Samkov / Pexels
Source: Ivan Samkov / Pexels

As a kid, you might have been scared of the dark, monsters, loud noises, creaky floors, clowns, or just about anything. As grown-ups, most, if not all of those “scaries” have disappeared, but fear still lives in you. Now instead of being scared of someone secretly living in your closet, parents have to face something even more menacing: raising children in a world filled with war, violence, racism, kidnappings, poverty, greed, and injustices. Turns out reality is more terrifying than a spooky story. Nevertheless, we must also remember—and remind our children—that this world is also filled with glimmers of hope, light, altruism, and love.

The scariest part of bein g a parent is not being able to guarantee you can protect your child from all of the above. But, you can surely try your hardest. When kids start walking, talking, and reading, they can be affected by events in the world which can scare them, including what they may hear on the news or at school. Because our love for them is so profound, we want to help them cope with scary experiences in a healthy way.

Sometimes it’s challenging to know what the “right” parenting decisions are, especially when your child is vulnerable and expressing big feelings. Perhaps you have considered turning off the news and disconnecting from social media as a temporary solution. We reached out to a parenting expert and founder of Practice San Francisco, Dr. Nina Kaiser, licensed child and family psychologist, for guidance on how to talk to your kids about scary events in the news.

Meet the expert
Dr. Nina Kaiser
Licensed Child and Family Psychologist

Dr. Kaiser has over 15 years of experience helping children and families and has a specialization in cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness-based strategies. Below are some advice, tips, and recommendations on how to support your children when the news rattles their world and yours.

When to Discuss Scary Events in the News with Kids

Parenting, as we know, comes with no guidebook. Luckily, Dr. Kaiser has shared some valuable insights on when to discuss scary events in the news with your children. She emphasizes parents should speak with their kids about world events when their child is showing an awareness that something is happening. Children can develop this awareness that something scary is happening in the world from the actions and/or words grownups use at home, from what parents watch at home, or from outside sources.

If you’re wondering what specific age is recommended to begin talking about scary world events, Dr. Kaiser suggested starting conversations when kids are preschool age or older and even younger if you are aware they’ve been exposed to certain information.

In fact, Dr. Kaiser shared, “Often even very young children can pick up on a sense that something big is happening around them, and as parents, we want to lean into these conversations in a developmentally-appropriate kind of way (rather than avoid them!) so that we have the power to control the flow of information—versus letting our kids’ imaginations run under the radar.”

Often even very young children can pick up on a sense that something big is happening around them, and as parents, we want to lean into these conversations in a developmentally appropriate kind of way (rather than avoid them!).

Ultimately, Dr. Kaiser advised parents to monitor what kind of information very young kids are consuming which may be “anxiety-provoking” and try your best to not expose them to “scary news” until they mature further. For the older kids, Dr. Kaiser recommended parents initiate conversations about the information their kids are exposed to so they have a safe space to discuss their feelings openly.

how to talk to kids about scary events in the news
Source: Shutterstock

How to Start the Conversation with Younger Kids

Parents want to protect the innocence of their children as long as they can. It’s disheartening when your kids feel scared or anxious about the world around them. If your little ones (preschool and kindergarten age) are aware of scary events on the news, Dr. Kaiser suggested parents “stick to the facts, don’t go into too much detail, keep it developmentally appropriate, and make sure that what you’re sharing isn’t unnecessarily scary (which also means monitoring your own thoughts and reactions as an adult).”

Dr. Kaiser offered this sample conversation she has discussed with her kindergartener: “A lot of grown-ups are talking about this event (insert minimal details). Do you have any questions?”

“A lot of grown-ups are talking about this event (insert minimal details). Do you have any questions?

She emphasized trying to give the child a sense of security and reassuring them that they are safe, but also validating their feelings that this situation has caused many people to worry and be scared. She recommends concluding the conversation on a positive note sharing that people are coming together to support those in need.

By the time you finish explaining all Dr. Kaiser recommends, your child may just want to play with their trains again and move on. Short, direct, and reassuring—without the scary details—is the best way to proceed with your very young kids.

How to Discuss Scary News with Older Children

In this digital age, when your kids are in elementary through high school, they are most likely exposed to more information beyond your control. This is especially true as they get older and are on social media which, in many ways, is Pandora’s box in terms of the amount of information your child can consume on any given day.

Because of this reality, Dr. Kaiser shared that, “With older kids, it’s important to start from a place of curiosity—ask your kids what they know already, what they are thinking, and how they are feeling, then use this information as a basis to guide the conversation.”

With older kids, it’s important to start from a place of curiosity—ask your kids what they know already, what they are thinking, and how they are feeling, then use this information as a basis to guide the conversation.

By following Dr. Kaiser’s recommendation, you are actively listening where to start your conversation with your older child based on their own perspective and experiences. Dr. Kaiser emphasized, “Older kids are more capable of handling more depth or detail, so you’ll probably need to offer more detailed facts or provide more information in response to your child’s questions than you might offer a younger child.”

Because older kids are more aware of their surroundings and the nuances in both verbal and non-verbal communication, you want to make sure your conversations leave them feeling safe and secure. Some suggestions Dr. Kaiser shared on how to establish a sense of security is by framing the conversation as part of the big picture on how world events have occurred (and have been resolved in most cases). She also recommended doing what Mister Rogers suggested, “looking for the helpers.” Talk about how these world events have galvanized the world to come together to fight against injustice and provide assistance in the face of a tragedy. This might even inspire your older child to contribute to a worthy cause.

Things Parents Should Avoid Saying

It’s hard to know what to say (or not say) and when to say it, especially when it is about something which also scares and unsettles you as a parent. Dr. Kaiser believes it is best, generally speaking, “to filter out information that is likely to feel overwhelming or directly threatening to our kids, about scary things over which we don’t have any information or control.”

This may mean with younger kids you have to be more aware of what is on the TV in the background or what you are talking about “on the side” with your partner which your child may be listening to without you noticing. 

When kids are tweens or teens, parents have less control over the information they are exposed to. Kids may be aware of horrific details or may even be receiving misinformation causing even further distress. Regardless of what older kids already know, Dr. Kaiser again recommended that “it’s helpful to start from a place of curiosity about what they already know—because you can then decide what further information you want or need to share.” 

how to talk to kids about scary events in the news
Source: Keira Burton | Pexels

What Parents Are Encouraged to Say

Regardless of age, our kids want to feel loved and safe. They look to us for guidance, even when they get older and don’t care to admit that openly. This is especially poignant in moments when tragedy surrounds our world and feelings of fear and the unknown are prevalent. Dr. Kaiser said our goal as parents is “to meet our kids where they are at in terms of: 1) their developmental level and 2) the information that they have already.” 

Based on Dr. Kaiser’s advice, this goal can serve as a guide to support your children at any stage of their development when difficult topics arise. It also allows parents to tailor the support their kids may need based on their own temperament and circumstances.

How to Navigate Conflicting Information Your Child May Receive

You cannot always control how and when your kids receive information which may upset them. If they have heard conflicting information, offer yourself up as a resource for questions they may have and remind them that you are available to help them feel safe and loved, while also providing them with accurate (and developmentally-appropriate) information on what is happening in the world. Ultimately, Dr. Kaiser reminded us, “Our goal as parents is to open the channel of conversation so that our kids know if they hear things that are frightening or confusing to them, they can come to us to talk about it.”

Conversation Guides for Parents

Abigail Gewirtz
When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids
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Michael Parker
Talk with Your Kids: 109 Conversations About Ethics and Things That Really Matter
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Dina Alexander and Melody Bergman
Conversations with My Kids: 30 Essential Family Discussions for the Digital Age
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Healthmedicine Press
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Love Languages of Kids
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Foster Cline & Jim Fay
Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility
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Books for Kids About Tragic Events on the News

Jacqueline B. Toner
What to Do When the News Scares You: A Kid’s Guide to Understanding Current Events
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Dr. Jillian Roberts
On the News: Our First Talk About Tragedy
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Books About Big Feelings for Younger Kids

Mary Nhin
Nervous Ninja: A Social Emotional Book for Kids About Calming Worry and Anxiety
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Cornelia Maude Spelman
When I Feel Scared
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Michael Gordon
When I Am Worried

listen to this as an audiobook together!

Shop now
Felicia Richards
Have No Fear, a Friend is Near: A Book of Feelings and Emotions for Kids
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Jo Witek
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings
Shop now
Sharon Selby
The Big Feelings Book for Children: Mindfulness Moments to Manage Anger, Excitement, Anxiety, and Sadness
Shop now

Books About Big Feelings for Older Kids

Vanessa Green Allen
Me and My Feelings: A Kid’s Guide to Understanding and Expressing Themselves
Shop now
Dawn Huebner
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety
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Katie Austin
Mindfulness for Kids Who Worry: Calming Exercises to Overcome Anxiety
Shop now
Gill Hasson
Put Your Worries Away
Shop now

Additional Resources for Parents

Below, we’re sharing five helpful videos that kids and parents can watch together—plus, some additional reading material for parents on how to talk to kids about scary events in the news.

Videos for Kids About Big Feelings, Scary News & Mindfulness

1. “Talk About Feelings and Emotions” by PBS KIDS

2. “Kids Feelings and Emotions Song” with a Little Spot

3. “Sad or Scary News Explained” by CBC Kids News

4. “Look for the Helper’s Song” from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and PBS KIDS

5. “How Mindfulness Empowers Us” by Sharon Salzberg

Further Reading

Why Your Kid Keeps Talking About a Scary Experience—And How to Help
Click to Read