Explaining the News to Our Kids

Kids get their news from many sources -- and they're not always correct. How to talk about the news -- and listen, too.
Caroline Knorr Parenting Editor | Mom of one Categories: Screen Time, Violence in the Media
Parenting Editor | Mom of one

Shootings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, end-of-the-world predictions -- even local news reports of missing kids and area shootings -- all of this can be upsetting news even for adults, much less kids. In our 24/7 news world, it's become nearly impossible to shield kids from distressing current events.

Today, kids get news from everywhere. This constant stream of information shows up in sharable videos, posts, blogs, feeds, and alerts. And since much of this content comes from sites that are designed for adult audiences, what your kids see, hear, or read might not always be age appropriate. Making things even more challenging is the fact that many kids are getting this information directly on their phones and laptops. Often parents aren't around to immediately help their children make sense of horrendous situations.

The bottom line is that young kids simply don't have the ability to understand news events in context, much less know whether or not a source of information is credible. And while older teens are better able to understand current events, even they face challenges when it comes to sifting fact from opinion -- or misinformation.

No matter how old your kid is, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally. Many can feel worried, frightened, angry -- even guilty. And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over. So what can you do as a parent to help your kids deal with all of this information?

Tips for all kids

Reassure your children that they're safe. Tell your kids that even though a story is getting a lot of attention, it was just one event and was most likely a very rare occurrence. And remember that your kids will look to the way you handle your reactions to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and considered, they will, too.

Tips for kids under 7

Keep the news away. Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half hour. Read the newspaper out of range of young eyes that can be frightened by the pictures. Preschool children don't need to see or hear about something that will only scare them silly, especially because they can easily confuse facts with fantasies or fears.

At this age, kids are most concerned with your safety and separation from you. They'll also respond strongly to pictures of other young children in jeopardy. Try not to minimize or discount their concerns and fears, but reassure them by explaining all the protective measures that exist to keep them safe. If you're flying somewhere with them, explain that extra security is a good thing.

Tips for kids 8-12

Carefully consider your child's maturity and temperament. Many kids can handle a discussion of threatening events, but if your children tend toward the sensitive side, be sure to keep them away from the TV news; repetitive images and stories can make dangers appear greater, more prevalent, and closer to home.

At this age, many kids will see the morality of events in stark black-and-white terms and are in the process of developing their moral beliefs. You may have to explain the basics of prejudice, bias, and civil and religious strife. But be careful about making generalizations, since kids will take what you say to the bank. This is a good time to ask them what they know, since they'll probably have gotten their information from friends, and you may have to correct facts.

You might explain that even news programs compete for viewers, which sometimes affects content decisions. If you let your kids use the Internet, go online with them. Some of the pictures posted are simply grisly. Monitor where your kids are going, and set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals.

Tips for teens

Check in. Since, in many instances, teens will have absorbed the news independently of you, talking with them can offer great insights into their developing politics and their senses of justice and morality. It will also give you the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix (just don't dismiss theirs, since that will shut down the conversation immediately).

Many teens will feel passionately about events and may even personalize them if someone they know has been directly affected. They'll also probably be aware that their own lives could be impacted by terrorist tactics. Try to address their concerns without dismissing or minimizing them. If you disagree with media portrayals, explain why so that your teens can separate the mediums through which they absorb news from the messages conveyed.

Additional resources

For more information on how to talk to your kids about a recent tragedy please visit the National Association of School Psychologists or the American Psychological Association.

About Caroline Knorr

As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more

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Comments (29)

Adult written by Senser123

I personally feel we need more good news stories than ever at all levels especially financially and politically and socially like say when a president announces he or she has signed a bill into law that will cause changes for the better instead of the worse or has lived up to a campaign promise.
Parent of a 8, 10, and 12 year old written by helpfulparent

My daughter was in sixth grade last year (kids 10-12-mostly 11 and 12). She had current events every week. She had to research things like Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, situation in Egypt, Greece's riots and bankruptcy, spread of STDs, Ukraine and Russia, etc. In seventh grade, it is a mandatory part of the curriculum.
Kid, 11 years old

I'm in fifth grade, and today I overheard some of my classmates talking about the "Boston Marathon tragedy". Even though half of the kids in my class are obnoxious, I think that they are mature enough to handle the subject matter... it all depends on your child. Some kids are more sensitive than others. I agree with the user who said that kids know more than you think. Probably everyone in my class knows what sex is thanks to the media glamorizing those things. In fact, once a girl in my class called a boy sexist (he's honestly an idiot) and he was ignorant enough to say "EWW, (GIRL'S NAME), YOU'RE DISGUSTING!!!". And many kids today may also grow up thinking sex is disgusting, when it is actually a very beautiful thing (Hmmm.... How were we conceived? Although I assume they have not matured yet, as most kids begin having sexual thoughts as they begin puberty).
Adult written by Shar12

WIth teens it might be a good idea to discuss their feelings about safety in their own school. Do they see any policies or practices they think should be in place? Are there any policies or practicies that they feel don't really contribute to keeping them safe? Adminiatration might not be able to explain everything and unfortunately budget limitations are a consideration but students and parents should feel free ot adress security and safety issues. SOmetimes they can get further than teachers can.
Educator and Parent written by ice wizard08

when a tragedy happens,and there is many that happen alot.I am so thankful I have my parents to rely on they always explain to me what has happen and reassure my safty that always makes me feel safe,that I can question something and get a honest answere.3rd grade thanks Mom and Dad!!!!!
Kid, 12 years old

Now this was some scary stuff. I heard about this from a kid in my class who used no details whatsoever and made everyone think it was at the elementary schools that went to our school.So yeah I was SCARED.
Teen, 13 years old written by Rango813

I agree with lovehopelife's comment. I understand that Common Sense Media's main purpose is to inform parents on upsetting events (such as this, the TDKR massacre, and maybe even Columbine if the site had existed then) and media's content, but kids know a LOT more about sex, violence, and language than this site lets on. I feel as though the people who write these believe that children are whimpering, unknowledgeable little creatures that need to be reassured with everything that it happening, which is true, but only for SOME children, say, 5 to 8? That is the time where most children have extremely overactive imaginations, so they might need the most reassuring. Don't get me wrong, I have an overactive imagination, too, and I'm 13! I saw TDKR on the day of the massacre and I was freaking out, but I think that is because I watch too many crime shows. Let's have an example: A seven year old hears about a minorly upsetting event on Fox News (my favorite news channel) about how the environment is dying. Would you people, as parents, prohibit news watching if the only event your child had seen was about recycling and helping the planet? I wouldn't, but then again, it depends on what they see. I remember when I was around seven or eight or nine, the Vanessa Hudgens controversy was just making headlines (anyone else remember?). What I admire about my parents is the fact they were not overprotective and all like, "Oh you poor child! Let us not show you the news anymore, because the news is terrible for young minds like yours!" They just told me that it was very bad and that I should never do it. And I listened. So please, parents, use your own judgement and use the news as a learning experience for your young children as to what is moral and immoral (right and wrong). Thank you for your time.
Parent written by Nan7472

Even before TV and computers KIDS knew a lot more about sex and violence and everything else in this world than parents ever gave them credit for. But I also remember thinking, at 13 years old, that I knew everything. What more was there to learn anyway, once you learned about sex and the violence people can do to each other? With age comes a little more wisdom, and you realize that the more you know and learn, the more you realize just how little you really know. Children should be included in these conversations, at tragic times like this, and allowed to speak and question. Some of my most enlightening times as a parent were when my son sat me down to talk with me at any age....3 or 4 even, at 6 or 11 years old, as a teen ager, as an adult, and even now when I am a grandmother. Communcation is our greatest gift to one another, but the greatest of all is that of a good listener.
Kid, 11 years old

Hey!!! i'm only 11 years-old. BUT i understand wayyyy to much i love movies and video games but, well, they have to much SEX in them. Most parents don't know it but kids in between 8 & 14 know way more than they should. I wish i didn't know about all this sex and stuff, like... "when a mommy and daddy love each other very much" stuff, I HATE IT WHEN there's an ad on TV for bra's or underpants :( EWWWW why do they even advertise that on kids channels? I HAVE A SERIOUS PROBLEM RIGHT NOW! because i looked up where baby's come from because i'm an only child and my mom said that a stork brings it to the mommy, but how did it get into her stomach..............? So i looked it up on google and i wish i did not search it SO when all of us are living in a world like this, how do i tell my mom that i searched that? Because if i do "SHE'LL KILL ME!" what should i do? A lot of parents don't know what kids like us are finding online out of curiosity. I'm a boy so i still think girls are kind of icky, but...... Why do baby's have to be born THAT WAY why can't they just fall out of the sky? PLEASE REPLY TO ME ANYBODY!!! -szgn1
Parent written by Nan7472

This is an old post, but I'm going to answer it anyway. You asked a hard question, but if you look around you, you will see that all animals and people, even horses, dogs, cats, insects and birds pollinating flowers have a way they come together than reproduces life. This is just simply the way life continues on earth. Your reaction and how you feel about this now will change as you grow older, even if it is hard for you to believe that right now, I don't think your Mom or your Dad would ever be angry with you for asking questions either. They were once a little girl and a little boy too. Above all stop worrying. Your parents will explain more as you grow older anway, and you will learn a little more in school. And if you don't like looking at awful advertisements and other things that upset you, well turn that TV off or exit out of the internet, and do something else. YOU have control of what you see and what you read. Just turn that stuff off. I still turn off movies and TV, that I don't like, and I am old. Just because something is there doesn't mean you have to like it or watch it. You choose what you want to see, and you control that with the "off" button on your remote or telephone, and with the exit button on the computer. .
Educator and Parent written by mymedia

In my opinion TV is loaded with ADULT content. Whether it is the news, reality TV, Violent movies, shows with inappropriate language, bad behavior, etc. Even commercials can be violent and filled with inappropriate messages for Kids. I find it appalling that I can not watch a show with my 11 and 12 year old without a preview of some violent movie or a Victoria Secrets commercial. Television and the internet do not seem to filter content with kids in mind. I do not allow my 11 and 12 year old to watch the news and I gave very few details about the Auroa shooting but I had to talk to them about it because they saw it on TV at a friends house. Kids should be kids and not be so full of anxiety and worry about bad and scary things. Kids need parents to be better role models and use more common sense when they allow their children to see and hear ADULT situations. I believe the PG-13 movie rating is a joke. For one thing the majority of these movies should be R (restricted) because of the violence that they contain. And also, parents do not adhere to the ratings because many allow their young children (4-14 years old) to view these movies. It is NOT OK!
Parent of a 8 and 14 year old written by valmay67

I know that this post is old, but it is still relative to this unfortunate event. I agree with this persons post. Our children are made to be adults way before they are ready. They never had a chance to be kids. They are exposed to so much from the media whether it is tv, internet or gaming. Even if they are watching a supposed good channel like "ABC Family", which is a total joke, tshowing commercials for older audiences like Pretty Little Liars and more. Plus, let's talk about sports. How many of your children love NFL Football or Pro Basketball or Hockey? They are exposed to Viagra commercials giving us all the warnings of erections lasting more than 4 hours and to seek medical attention! Thank you so much for sharing this information with ALL of us. Sports are not just for older men, us women and children enjoy watching as well! And yes, the Victoria Secret commercials are leaning toward pornography as well. I also agree that TV and movie ratings are a joke, you are correct. I am not old fashioned or a prude, I just think that there is a time and place for everything, and just let kids be kids for a little while longer. They will be adults for the rest of their lives, why rush into it? I'm 45, and I wish I was a kid again sometimes. Thank you for reading.
Adult written by davyborn

Kids are smart. With all of the resources all around us, and with all of the modern technology that surrounds us, even kids as young as 5 or 6 will eventually find out some way or another. Still, I really do believe that it is very important to let them know when the facts that they heard were true, and when they were completely false.
Kid, 10 years old

I am always scared about how the world is going to be. I am probaly the most scared 10 year old in the world. I am afraid that I will be one of those people. I am pretty big so I am not very fast and I am worried!!!!!!!!!!!! People need to TAKE A STAND FOR THE GOOD SIDE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Kid, 12 years old

I hope my mum reads this. Maybe she'll turn of the news when I'm there cause it always upsets me. Nowadays al news it bad news. :(
Teen, 15 years old written by Kingdestroyah

Alright, I'm 12, and the fact that you treat people that are 12 like they are idiots in this article is fairly offending. You treat us like we're 6 on this website. STOP DOING THAT. You probably think kids my age will be scared to go to TDKR because of the massacre. We are not. Stop acting like we are so much younger than we are.
Teen, 13 years old written by personofthoughts

you need to stop acting like you are much older than you are, I'm also 12 and I understand that with age comes experience, it's not about whether or not your scared to go see tdkr this article was to give advice and a guide to parents on how to deal with a child who probably got the wrong idea like you.
Kid, 12 years old

that event was a sad traguic event that shouldint be talked about to kids and im sorry if they know god bless the victums
Teen, 15 years old written by sisterwhocares

A tip for parents, teens, and kids: in the media, and especially in the news, there is going to be PLENTY of bias and political favoring towards a certain party/polititian. Always be skeptical, and do not automatically believe everything that they say about polititians on the news. Do your research, but don't do "opposing viewpoints" research if you are easily swayed by people's POVs. Search up FACTS. If you aren't quite sure whether something is fact or fiction (believe me, it's actually really, really hard to tell the difference sometimes), then ask others, or ask yourself questions. What is the problem? Why is it such a big deal? Is the brought-up solution what is right to do, or is it just what people want to hear? Asking questions can help you discern political facts from the bias.
Teen, 13 years old written by lovehopelife

Im suprised Adults dont already know that kids know way more than you think. We know things that we shouldnt know till were 21 i think. So open your eyes Adults and Perents were smater than we may come across as.
written by Anonymous

Point taken lovehopelife, but adolescents notoriously think they know everything - quite naturally, it being a function of age that their brand-spankingly shiny new opinions have yet to be informed by the softening and weathering that experience brings..... Often, when we are older, we learn to cringe with embarrassment at the memory of our adolescent selves; indeed, some of us may also lament that we give such a poor impression of our abilities and intelligence when we express our views in writing to the world, and regret that we failed to learn stuff like grammar, punctuation and spelling when we were at school. A 16th century Frenchman, Henri Estienne, is often quoted (in France) as saying: "Si jeunesse savoit; si vieillesse pouvoit"..... roughly translated, it means: "If only youth had the knowledge; if old age had the strength".
Teen, 15 years old written by LukeTheGreat

Being a teenager myself, I can say that lovehopelife's comment is technically true, but doesn't set a very good example for his claim to our overall intelligence. Either way, I think that this is talking more about children who are legitimately too young to comprehend motivations behind the Aurora shooting or other such depravities. If lovehopelife had actually read the whole thing, he'd have seen that it acknowledges that teens are generally mature and intelligent enough to handle these sorts of issues.