How to Talk to Your Kids About The News

A parent’s guide to starting the conversation about political violence, racism, pandemics, and other difficult topics.

Image credit: Anek Soowannaphoom. Shutterstock.

I’m a board-certified child and family psychologist and parent of two. Here’s some information for parents on how to open the conversation about distressing news. I’ll give you a reading list for other important perspectives on this topic at the end. I want to acknowledge that like all parenting advice, this may not resonate with you and your experience. There is no one size fits all for parenting and you know your kid better than anyone else.

We can help our kids understand what’s happening in the world by opening the conversation. It is possible to approach difficult and complex topics, and it is better to talk about them than to avoid or dissociate from the daily traumas we experience. Why? Because in moments of confusion kids try to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing.

Kids fill in the dots, they connect things that happen in the world out there to things that are happening in their world.

When something happens in the news and it affects you as a parent, kids may believe you are distracted or angry for something they did; they may believe you are distracted or angry at another parent. They will come up with ideas and make sense of their experience in the best way they know-how.

Or worse, they will ignore signals and emotions they feel and begin to learn “we don’t talk about that.” That’s when you will see somatic symptoms of mental distress, like headaches, bedwetting, hypochondria, and problems with feeding and toileting — the list goes on.

Today presents yet another opportunity to teach your kids how to think about what they see in the world. Now you may need this day for self-care as a parent and family, this may not be the day for you to dive deep. But if you have the energy to talk to your kid, even just a little, I’ll give you a way to start the conversation.

First, keep teaching them about history.

It’s important to introduce historical and systemic thinking to kids when they are making sense of the news. This style of thinking allows people to realize they are not alone, they were born into this, and they can change it with the help of those around them. It also stops isolation, self-blame, and hyper-individualism. It stops people from pulling away from community and thinking they can fix the world in their mind, e.g., “I stop my negative thoughts, now I feel better, but I look outside and the world is burning down.”

Cognitive shifts may help reduce overly negative thinking, but alone, they will not fix the problems we face in society. Similarly, the events our kids see in the news were not the result of a bad kid or a bad person alone, they are the result of systems that have been set in motion hundreds of years ago. (For more on the bad apple vs. bad barrel dilemma see psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s work.)

Talking and thinking about what’s happening in historical ways helps to promote systemic ways of thinking, reduce self-blame, and leads to community action. To start encouraging this way of thinking with your kid say something like,

“[Name issue here] is a pretty complex problem. It can’t be solved overnight or with one person, but it’s important we talk about this. We can come together with our friends and family and your school to discuss what happened. We can read some books that might help us.” (See reading list at end of article)

Just that alone is enough to give your child a framework to move away from personalizing and confusion. It may seem paradoxical to say naming the complexity actually reduces complexity. But calling things what they are is the antidote to gaslighting. When kids feel confused, and you validate that, it becomes less confusing and reduces anxiety. So with your children…

Speak simply and truthfully but don’t conceptually oversimplify what is occurring.

Let’s imagine a distressing or traumatic event occurred that, as a parent, rocked you to your core (yes, pretty easy to “imagine” that at this point in 2021). You know you are having a reaction, but you aren’t sure how it’s affecting your child.

For elementary-aged kids, it’s better not to ask, “Did you notice how I was feeling?” or to assume your kid is unaware. Understand that your child can be highly attuned to you and it will help them if you can give them a way to think about what they are seeing in you and in the news. Start the conversation by saying things like:

“Yesterday I was pretty upset and angry or [fill in emotion]. I think you probably could tell that something was happening. You can always ask me questions about things you hear or things you see your parents do, but I will also tell you what’s going on. In our house, we talk about things that are confusing, scary or surprising. Nothing is off the table here.”

Then tell the truth, but don’t get into details that are potentially too much or too confusing to digest without a parent. You provide the container, the filter, the language, and the grounding for them — even though that sounds like a lot. 2020 was a year where a lot of people felt like they failed as a parent in their abilities to provide these things. I believe you haven’t been backing away from this; you’ve been surviving too.

When it comes to teenage kids: listen first.

Start with an open-ended question like:

What did you hear about the events yesterday?

What are you seeing on social media?

What do your friends make of it?

What do you think about what’s happening?

How do you feel right now?

Then show you understand them by repeating what you hear. Don’t just keep asking questions. (I wrote an article about how to do reflective listening here, which you can adapt for the current context).

Validate their experience. It makes perfect sense they would think these things or feel these ways. Listen, then share your experience. For example,

It makes total sense you’d feel that way. There is so much to take in right now.

Is it okay with you if I share a little bit about how I’ve been feeling? I’ve been pretty distracted today because I’m angry [or sad or fill in here]. I’ve been worried about [x]. So if I’m acting more annoyed or distant [fill in] today, it’s because of that. I want to keep talking to you about this stuff, I want to hear what you think about it. We can figure out what to do together.

These examples are perhaps overly generic, and you will need to adapt to your personal authentic style. The point is that you are showing that you recognize they are affected and that you are too.

A lot of excellent people have written about how to talk to kids:

For more on talking to kids about trauma and difficult topics, check out this article by the American Psychological Association and this one from AhHa! Parenting.

I also regularly use these books in my practice, written by other child psychologists and experts:

Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice

A Terrible Thing Happened

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen…and Listen so Kids Will Talk

I personally love “a kids book about series” founded by Jelani Memory, including:

A kids book about empathy

A kids book about racism

Finally, to foster even more conversations about history and systemic thinking, I recommend reading from The Conscious Kid’s Library booklist with your kids.

Thank you parents and caregivers for taking this on. I see you. We need you. You are showing our kids another way today.

Dr. Lord is a board certified, licensed psychologist who innovates AI mental health interventions. Her mission is to help people learn how to listen.👂🏼💗🦻🏽

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