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Discussing distressing news events with children

  • From time to time children are exposed to distressing news coverage via the radio, TV, social media and other sources. Coverage of upsetting news such as war, terrorist attacks or natural disasters may leave children feeling confused or frightened.

    Even if a child isn’t exposed to the news, they could learn about an event by overhearing conversations, talking with peers or online. It is helpful to discuss what they have seen and heard with a parent or caregiver to avoid misunderstandings and provide reassurance.

    How distressing news can impact children

    Often the distress children feel when they are exposed to news coverage is driven by a fear that these events may happen to them and the people they love.

    A child’s response may vary depending on age, past experiences, temperament, proximity of the event and the coverage they see. It can also be impacted by the response adults and caregivers have, for example if a parent is distressed a child may have the same response.

    Signs and symptoms to look for include:

    • Difficulty soothing and calming down
    • Trouble sleeping and increased nightmares
    • Change in appetite
    • ‘Clingy’ behaviour
    • Regression to old behaviours (e.g., bedwetting)
    • Withdrawal from social activities
    • Difficulty focusing at school
    • Recurring physical complaints (e.g., headaches, tummy aches)

    How to talk to children about distressing news events

    Prepare for the discussion

    These conversations often happen without warning, but if you have time to prepare, wait until a moment when you feel calm and ready to talk about the topic.

    It’s best to pick a time and place to talk where you will not be interrupted and where your child feels safe and comfortable.

    Talking with your child about what they know

    Open the discussion by asking your child what they know about the news event. This is a good opportunity to correct false information and provide context.

    Remember to use age-appropriate language. Check your child’s understanding throughout the conversation and allow them to ask questions. Often their knowledge is disjointed or incomplete.

    Validate their feelings

    Encourage your child to talk about how the news makes them feel, but don’t force them to discuss it if they are not ready. It’s important your child knows it’s normal to feel upset and talking about feelings can help.

    It is often useful to discuss your own reactions, to show these feelings are common. Take this opportunity to demonstrate how you use healthy coping strategies to feel better, and provide suggestions that might help your child (e.g., playing with friends, taking the dog for a walk or doing something creative).

    Reassure your child

    Ultimately, it’s important that you help your child feel safe and loved. For example, you might provide reassurance that these events are rare and that the situation is being handled by experts who can help. Remind your child about good news stories to shift the balance of negative media coverage and redirect their focus.

    Keep the conversation open

    Let your child know that they can come to you at any time with additional questions or to talk about how they are feeling later. 

    How to tailor a discussion for different age groups

    Pre-school aged children

    • Pre-school aged children are often more impacted by graphic video footage of traumatic events, even when they don’t understand the details of the news story. They often require less detail of the event itself and more general reassurance to feel safe.
    • When discussing your child’s feelings, you might find it helpful to talk about where you feel your emotions (e.g., “I feel a heaviness in my chest”) to help your child recognise and describe the physical symptoms of stress.

    Primary school aged children

    • Primary school aged children may be particularly concerned that the distressing news event may reoccur or spread, making them or their family unsafe.
    • To help them feel safe you may need to provide more information on the event to help them understand that they are not at risk.
    • If suitable, turn the conversation to ways you might be able to help or take action, for example by donating to disaster relief.
    • You could ask whether the news event has been talked about at school and address any confusion about what other people have said.

    Tips for supporting children

    • While it may not be possible or appropriate to shield your child from all media reporting, monitor how much they are watching and try to minimise exposure to avoid your child becoming overwhelmed.
    • Where possible, watch coverage of news with your child. This way you can give context to help them understand the event and provide reassurance.
    • Try to move on to a new activity that your child enjoys to distract them from dwelling on the bad news story.
    • Keep to your family’s daily routine, make sure your child continues to eat well, get plenty of sleep and exercise regularly, as children feel more secure in predictable surroundings.
    • Some children will feel reassured by the creation of a family safety plan, especially in regions exposed to recurring natural disasters.

    Key points to remember

    • It’s normal for children to feel anxious after exposure to distressing news.
    • Talk to your child about what they know and help them understand the context of the event.
    • Validate your child’s feelings, show them how you cope with difficulties and support them to create their own healthy coping strategies.
    • Keep the conversation open for your child to share their questions and feelings with you in the future.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    What do I do if my child becomes fixated on a topic that scares them?
    Encourage your child to draw, or if they are older to write about their feelings. Schedule some time to come back and talk to your child again later in the week about their feelings. Provide plenty of reassurance and comfort, and suggest they move on to play or another activity that focuses their attention elsewhere.

    What can I do if it is my child’s friend/sibling keeps raising distressing topics?
    Help your child to discuss how it makes them feel and ask the friend/sibling to stop. Later, check in with your child to see how it went and if they need further support.

    What can I do if my child withdraws and will not engage in a discussion?
    Doing drawings with younger children can work well instead of starting with words. Coming back more than once to the topic shows you really want to help them with it, and gives your child the chance to talk when they feel ready to.

    When do I know it’s time to seek professional help for my child?
    It may be time to seek professional help if you child’s sleep is affected over several nights, if the problem is intruding on everyday activities, if their mood is affected for more than a few days (e.g., sad, irritable) or if their behaviour is affected for more than a few days (e.g., aggressive, withdrawn, not eating as usual).


Disclaimer  

This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.