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Tips for talking to children about frightening world events




By Michael Hawton

3rd March, 2022

We are facing yet more distressing news about devastating floods, events of violence overseas, ongoing pandemic news, and climate change in the media lately. These types of things are being more regularly reported, and as a result, an increasing number of children and teenagers are being affected by ongoing exposure to these events. Many people are wondering what they can do to protect their children from the vicarious anxiety provoked by these media reports. 

We need to recognise that we have the fully developed adult minds and that we are able to plan, reason and organise our thoughts better than children and young people, who do not yet have fully developed minds. They won’t have this mature mind until they reach their early twenties. A child’s mind is more prone to get anxious when they are exposed to frightening events compared to adults – particularly where they see images of people who are upset, scared, and crying.

I am not saying that these events should not cause us all significant concern, but the question is how much should we expose children - who have only a limited ability to control these events as individuals – to saturation coverage during crises?  If part of our job as parents is to protect our child’s well-being, then there are times when we need to shield them from heavily publicised world events that might cause them fear and worry. This includes us
not getting on the bandwagon to criticise those people we hold responsible for these occurrences. As children hear more and more about distressing things, this repetitive ‘hearing’ or ‘viewing’ can accumulate stress in their minds. Anxiety builds, in other words.

When it comes to things like these devasting floods here on the East Coast of Australia, it can be easy for children (and adults alike) to feel helpless. Of course, our hearts go out to
everyone who has been directly affected. Those in surrounding areas, even if you haven’t been directly affected, there won’t be any of us who haven’t seen some horrific images or footage this week online or the news.  One of the biggest questions people can have at these times is “I feel so helpless, what can we do?”

My first tip is; focus on small attainable goals to help your children feel like that are contributing to a solution. As a family look up online what some of your neighbouring community need, do a family activity to put together a resource pack for a local community. When it comes to a something as large scale as the conflict in Ukraine, children may feel increasingly worried, it is important to tell them they are not alone. After such a long period with the world gripped by pandemic worry, it's a lot to take in and it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Talk frankly with your children, shielding or hiding them away from it will only scare them. Research some things that you can do, lots of charities, such as Red Cross, Choose Love, Unicef have charities that you can make donate to. All research and educate your child on some of the aid and humanitarian efforts that are being made to assist people on the ground in Ukraine.

This feeds on to my second tip;once you’ve seen or heard a frightening world event, don’t keep watching it over and over. Turn the TV off or turn the radio to another station. Try to minimize your children’s exposure to the news of these events and remember that the media’s job is to make things more dramatic so that people watch the news. Be especially aware that images seen on television (or video footage on online media platforms) have a particularly powerful effect on children, even teenagers. I suggest watching a reputable news site together and discussing the event, don’t dwell on the gruesome details and go over the facts together. Expect your child to be emotional and give them plenty of reassurance. Minimise their exposure without shielding them completely. Trying to shield your child completely may pique their interest and will push them to seek news and images on social media sites.

Try to minimize your children’s exposure to the news of these events.

If they say they are worried about what they have seen my third tip is try and hear their feelings before moving on to another topic. You can listen to them by simply acknowledging what you believe they might be experiencing. Through this acknowledgment, you’re giving them congruent emotional feedback, which is an essential element of helping children grow their emotional intelligence. Remember your acknowledgment of how they are feeling is not your agreement about how they are seeing things. Just tune in to what they are saying and where you can, make statements about what you observe – ‘So, seeing those people made you feel pretty worried that it could happen here’ or ‘If I saw something like that I think I would be upset too’.

Help your child get things in proportion.

My final tip; help your child get things in proportion. In Australia and New Zealand, we live in safe societies, floods are frightening, but don't happen all the time. It is also important to highlight that lots of people have banded together to help those impacted by the flood. Sometimes, children need to be reminded that the news – particularly overseas news – represents only a small slice of what is going on in the world. For better or worse, the news tends to focus on the destructive, frightening and violent events which makes the news, well - news! As adults, we know that it’s not a balanced picture of the world. Let your child know that the majority of people impacted by the floods are safe. That you can and will do normal everyday things and that there are structures in place to work through to make a difference to these unusual events. When it comes to the floods and climate change commit to do what you can, (like drive your car less) but don’t unnecessarily worry your children about things they can hardly control as individuals. There is research showing that teenagers who set unrealistic goals are less happy. So, better to make deal with yourself and your family that you will give a proportional response and do what you can, within reason.

Remember that injustice is something that children feel very keenly, so it is important
for parents and significant adults to guide our children through these trying times. Parentshop has two programs for parents to assist children to manage anxiety and build resilience.

I have developed online parent courses on child anxiety - and how parents can find themselves too often accommodating their child’s anxiety. To find out more about the online webinars for Parents to help manage anxiety and build resilience in children and young people see the links below for an age-appropriate course.

No Scaredy Cats - for children aged 2-12 years-old: CLICK HERE.

Resilience In Our Teens - for teens aged 13-18 years-old: CLICK HERE.

I have developed a program for teachers and teacher aides to manage a child’s anxiety and build resilience in children and young people in the classroom. See the links below for an age-appropriate program for your primary or secondary school.

No Scaredy Cats in the Classroom: CLICK HERE.

Resilience In Our Teens for High Schools: CLICK HERE.

For child and family specialists working with children aged 2 - 12 year old or their parents our professional development program for you is available via webinar, or as an in-house training opportunity in your organisation.

No Scaredy Cats: CLICK HERE.

About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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