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How to Talk to Kids About Violence in the News

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
A young girl watches TV at home

Disturbing images from war and other events in the news can have a profound effect on children living far from the violence.

Even if they don’t show it, children may have fears about their or their family’s safety when they see the news, says University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s child and adolescent psychiatrist Mary Gabriel, MD.

Dr. Gabriel offers advice about how parents and caregivers can help children cope.

What’s Your Top Piece of Advice?

Talk to your children about what they know and how they are feeling. Listening, validating and being there are the most important things. Give the child space to explore what they know and their feelings and then respond in an age-appropriate fashion.

Should I Wait Until My Child Brings It up?

It’s perfectly fine to start a conversation by asking what they know. Parents sometimes assume their kids don’t know a lot about what’s going on in the world. But don’t assume, especially because of social media content that children are exposed to.

You want to get a sense of what they know and use that as an opportunity to educate and correct misinformation. Their information may be coming from friends or people who do not have the facts or who hold certain world views or values that your family does not share.

Is it Common for Children to Have Anxiety About Events Far Away?

Absolutely, especially for children who have experienced their own trauma. They can be triggered by something that happens elsewhere.

Many kids who live in areas where crime rates are high may know someone who’s been a victim of crime. It’s not unusual for them to be triggered. Kids can be fairly self-centered. They’re going to take things from a very personal standpoint. They might start worrying about what’s going to happen to them and their family when hearing about violence thousands of miles away.

How Do I Reassure My Child?

It’s good to tell children there are people to protect them, that our government and our communities are doing everything to assure their safety here.

Be honest about what you know and don’t know about events happening in the news. As kids get older, their questions are little more complex. It’s okay to say you don’t know the answer to some questions, but maybe you can find the answers together. By doing that, you’re showing them you’re here for them.

It’s also a good opportunity to talk about tolerance, prejudice and respecting others. That also helps them feel safe in their own neighborhoods and teaches them values that will help them long term.

What About Media Exposure?

Watching graphic content, especially repeatedly, is distressing for everyone, regardless of age. It can be traumatizing. I would definitely limit exposure to graphic news reports, not just for kids but for adults too.

In addition to graphic images, victims of tragedy describing events that happened, the destruction and loss of lives, can be too much for kids. Preschoolers and younger children should not be exposed to any content about war and conflict. If it comes on the TV while they’re in the room, change the channel.

The other thing to remember is kids notice how their parents are doing, even if you don’t think they are. Kids can tell if you are distressed and anxious. So, it’s important for parents to take care of themselves. If you’re needing to process difficult news with someone, find another adult. Don’t do it with your children while you’re talking about their feelings.

Seeking support or medical attention for yourself is just at important. If you’re not doing well because of seeing these images, you’re not going to be there for your child.

Final Thoughts for Parents?

  • Don’t avoid the topic or pretend it didn’t happen—this does not protect your child. It may actually increase anxiety and prevent them from understanding what’s happening and then coping with it and their feelings.
  • Follow their lead. Some kids want to know more, have more questions and want a discussion. Other kids, especially younger ones but older ones too, might not want to talk about it. I wouldn’t force the issue. You’ve introduced the idea and said I’m here for you if you want to talk about it.
  • Remember, kids take time to process. You might have a very brief conversation and they want to stop because it’s a lot to take in. Don’t be surprised if they come back more than once and want to talk more about it. They might want more information or reassurance that they are safe.
  • It’s important to maintain a persistent level of safety and comfort. One way to do that is sticking to routines. Having routines during times of uncertainty creates a level of comfort and control.
  • The most important thing for children is to feel connected to others. Maintaining connections in the family, with extended family, friends and neighbors can be very reassuring.

Related Links

The team at the Rainbow Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry provides a full scope of psychiatric evaluation and treatment services, either directly or through referral to affiliated staff and programs. Learn more.