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Texas shooting to Ukraine: Talking to kids about scary news

Children live in a hyperconnected world with easy access to bad news and images. Here are 4 ways parents can help their kids deal with current events

It has been difficult for both parents and children to process information about the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas
It has been difficult for both parents and children to process information about the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas (iStockphoto)

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Whether it is the shooting at a school in Uvalde in Texas this week, the war in Ukraine, or news from your own backyard, the first half of 2022 has been a tough one. This is especially so for children, who live in a hyperconnected world with access to scary news and accompanying images.

While emotions run high and discussions rage on in social media, our children often come to us with questions. Sometimes they do not say anything at all — which is fine, too — but this doesn’t mean that they don’t know have an opinion. They often do also discuss global issues with their friends.

While younger children and preschoolers do not watch or understand the news, they can sense our emotions keenly; and elementary and middle-schoolers are mostly curious.

For instance, my 12-year-old daughter always asks me about the news because as a family, we watch and read about what is going on in other countries, discuss these events keenly, and feel deeply connected to the world.

This has been a difficult week to process for parents around the world. As a mother, my first reaction is to express anger and anguish at the gruesome news of the shooting at a Texas school, but experience has taught me that cooler heads must prevail.

Here are four ways to deal with and talk to your kids about scary news.

Monitor and limit exposure to the news

Breaking news is everywhere and while we cannot escape it, we can limit our children’s exposure to it. Dr. Salma Prabhu, a clinical psychologist based in Mumbai, cautions us that whenever a devastating news story breaks, it is important to tell our kids to wait for more reports to emerge before jumping to conclusions. “Parents need to tell their children to wait till a proper report in the form of article comes out,” she says. “We need to learn that fresh reports have a lot of speculation and it is only after a few days that the reality and the background behind it all becomes clear. One has to wait for the truth.”

The LIFE (Learning in Informal and Formal Environments) Center in the US coined the term “joint media engagement”, which is when you consume media with your child. Try not to let the child experience the news without you. Parental guidance and perspective can help children navigate the news or media with a little more calmness and clarity.

When experiencing these news stories with your child, be calm, composed and do not express emotion or strong opinions in front of them. Also, debunk misconceptions and myths that emerge after a news story breaks. Much of what we see on social media is unverified and may be false.

Find out what they know already

Process your emotions first and anticipate what questions your kids could ask you. “What do you know?” “Where did you hear about it?” “How does it make you feel?” These are some of the questions you can ask when trying to find out what they know or how the news has affected them.

When news about the war in Ukraine broke out, my daughter asked me if it is the beginning of World War III. When your kids ask you such questions, offer very simple information in a calm and reassuring manner but do not dismiss their fears or take them lightly. Put things into perspective and ask them to use their words to describe what they feel and if possible, to name the emotions they are experiencing.

Set context and do not label

Some children feel the news or events keenly. Reassure them that you are always there for them and tell them that they can always come to you with questions. When explaining an event to your kids, use simple and age-appropriate words. Do not bombard them with information.

It is tempting to be swayed by the emotions of the day, but avoid labelling people. “When talking with children it is important to discuss the issue of mental health and the danger of possessing fire arms," says Moya Caddy, mother to two children, 10 and 12, and the founder of a popular online community called Super Mums of India. "As a parent, I would also express the importance of kindness and how words can really impact someone." 

Stick to routines and focus on positive news too

When news of COVID-19 reached us, my daughter went into panic mode. As a family, we decided to establish very clear routines and we stuck to them as much as possible, which helped us a lot. We also focused attention on the helpers and the people who were trying to solve the problem, be it the policemen, frontline workers, doctors, nurses, volunteers and the community at large.

I am guilty of doomscrolling as much as anyone else, but we need to break away from the cycle and focus on other news too. For example, I recently discussed with my daughter the story of Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa and his incredible achievements in chess. We even watched his winning moment on YouTube.

You cannot eliminate news from your children’s lives but you can help them navigate it. These are tough but teachable moments. They present opportunities to have conversations with our children and to truly connect with them.

Shweta Sharan is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru

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