Talking to your child about upsetting news stories

Sometimes children and teenagers can feel worried or upset by stories they hear about in the news. With rolling news and social media, bad news can become overwhelming and the topic may be unclear or frightening. As a parent or carer, you can help to reassure your child. 

News stories that are upsetting for children or teens

Even if your child doesn’t watch or read the news regularly, you can’t always protect them from the reality of the real world. Sometimes children find out about things on social media or overhear conversations and they might have questions. Children are particularly likely to be worried if the news: 

  • is close to home – they might be aware of something that has happened in their local community or their online community, like when somebody they follow on social media dies
  • involves people their own age – they might feel scared that something similar could happen to them, especially with stories about bullying or knife crime 
  • impacts a lot of people – news stories about war, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and global warming can all be worrying for children because they can be difficult to understand

Tune into how your child is feeling

Make sure your child feels able to ask questions. Listen to what they tell you. Try to acknowledge any emotions they have. For example, you could say, “I can imagine that made you feel scared/worried/frightened/sad.” 

If your child is younger, their feelings may show up in play. This could be fighting games, or how they play with their toys. Try asking them what their toys are feeling to help you understand what your child is experiencing.  

Not all children will find it easy to share their feelings. It can help to: 

  • ask how they are  
  • follow their lead with conversation – if they want to talk, you can help them work through things
  • give them space if they don’t want to talk or don’t seem interested
  • ask if there is someone else they might be comfortable confiding in

Help them understand

Be open with your child when answering their questions. But be aware of their age and level of understanding. Ensure the information they have is accurate and appropriate for their age. 

If you don’t know the answer to something, it’s OK to say this. Tell them you’ll look it up and come back to them.

Tailor your response to your child’s needs

Every child will react to the news in their own way, so think about what would be most helpful to them.  

For younger children, play can be a way to help them make sense of the world. They may find it easier to engage with complicated topics this way. Engage in your child’s games to help them with any questions. You could try a role play with their toys about resolving conflict, for example. 

If you have a child with autism or ADHD, they are more likely to become overwhelmed by information. Explain what’s happening in simple terms. For children with autism, you may need to be more explicit about the smaller details. 

Focus on the people helping others

Take time to highlight the people who are supporting those in need. This can help give your child a hopeful and positive message. Try pointing out acts of kindness on TV or in newspapers. It could be things that individual people have done, or how different organisations are helping. 

Help them manage their worries

If your child is feeling anxious or worried, suggest they think about what’s in their control and what isn’t. This can help them let go of the things where they can’t make a difference. Try the ‘Circles of control’ activity by: 

  • drawing two circles – one smaller circle and one larger circle around the outside
  • encouraging your child to write down everything they can control in the inner circle 
  • asking them to write the things they can’t control in the outer circle

Get them to focus on the inner circle. What might they be able to do about the things they can control? What actions can they take? See if they can focus on the positive things they can do to make a difference.  

British Red Cross has a video explaining the Circles of control activity in more detail.

Encourage them to take positive action

If your child wants to do something to help, explore some ideas with them. This could include writing a letter to their MP, backing a campaign or donating items to a collection.

Keep things simple and achievable.

Give them stability in their own lives

Where possible, keep your family routines the same as they usually are. Routine is a way for children to be able to predict what’s coming next. It can help to give them a feeling of safety and security. 

Try to ensure there’s also space for fun and relaxation at home. Consider limiting the amount of time they can access news stories on TV, social media or radio, to reduce anxious feelings.

Move on to other things

When they seem comfortable to move onto something else, let the subject go. Try to do something nice afterwards to help them manage their feelings. This could be a hobby, taking a walk, baking together or playing a game.  

Look to your child to judge when it’s the right time to focus on other things. But reassure them and let them know you’re there to talk whenever they need to. 

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This advice was written by our experienced Parent Talk coaches. Parent Talk is a free online service for parents and carers, provided by the charity Action for Children. For more advice, message our parenting coaches with our online chat.

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