How to Support Your Children & Speak With Them About Distressing News & Events

Young children need to feel safe and secure to develop well in the early years. You can create a sense of safety in your family by being warm, loving & responsive. Talking with your child and helping them cope with distressing natural disaster news is part of this. Here are some tips on how to chat to your little ones.

If young children are exposed to media coverage of disasters and other distressing news events, it can affect them, even if they don’t fully understand what’s happening.

For example, young children might feel:

  • frightened by what they see or hear
  • upset or unsettled by the stress or distress that adults around them are feeling
  • worried that they or their families might get hurt
  • overwhelmed by constant coverage – they might even think the disaster is happening over and over again.

Young children might become more clingy, have trouble sleeping, become anxious, behave in difficult ways, or not want to be away from parents or other carers.

Young children are more likely to be affected by distressing news events if:

  • the event upsets their parents or carers
  • they’re personally affected by the event – for example, if a loved one is injured or dies, or if their home, school or community is damaged
  • there’s a lot of coverage, especially if there’s graphic video of the event.

Disaster news and distressing news events: limiting young children’s exposure

It’s good to be aware of how much news media coverage your young child is exposed to.

You can limit what young children see and hear by:

  • not having the radio or TV on
  • not using your phone while your child is around
  • not talking about the news in front of your child.
  • Talking is the best way to help when your child is aware of disaster news and distressing news events. Your child will be better able to cope if you give him accurate, age-appropriate information and support.

Here are some ideas for talking with young children about things like terrorism, natural disasters, violent crime and other disaster news and distressing events.

Make time to talk

The best time to talk is when your child is interested or curious. So if your child asks you a question, stop what you’re doing and respond. If the conversation goes on and you need to stop, that’s OK. But let your child know you can talk again later, and make sure you do.

Try to talk when you and your child are relaxed and rested – for example, in a quiet and familiar place after a snack and a nap.

Find out what your child knows and explain what has happened

If your child has been exposed to media coverage of a disaster or has overheard you talking about it, she probably knows something is going on. So it’s always best to acknowledge it. If you pretend that nothing has happened, this could confuse your child and make her feel less safe.

It’s also a good idea to find out what your child knows. Your child might not have an accurate idea of what’s happening, so you can correct any misinformation and give him the facts.

When you’re giving your child the facts, keep it simple and brief. If you want to talk about how people are feeling, that’s OK. But it’s best to focus on simple feelings your child can understand. If your child isn’t worried about the event, you don’t want to scare her with information and emotions she doesn’t need.

For example, ‘Yes, some people got hurt in the city today, which is very sad. They’re being looked after. The police have caught the person who hurt them, so he can’t do it again’.

Try to check whether your child understands, ask whether he has any questions and answer them simply.

Check in with your child’s feelings

Tune in to your child’s feelings, and reassure her if she’s feeling anxious or upset. For example, ‘Scary things happen in the world, but they don’t happen very often. Grown-ups work hard to keep everyone safe’.

It’s OK to tell your child if you’re upset. But try to protect your child from your distress if possible. For example, ‘Some people lost their homes today in a fire, and I feel very sad for them. But I’m OK, and it’s OK to feel sad when things like this happen’.

Move on to another activity

After you’ve talked with your child, move on to another activity that your child enjoys – for example, drawing or reading together. This helps to shift your child’s attention to something else and gives your child time to feel safe together with you.

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