How to Talk to Young Children About World News:

Understanding How These Events Affect Them and Helpful Strategies to Support Them

When frightening world events are covered in the news, it can cause emotions such as fear, sadness, anger and anxiety wherever we live. In this article, Early Childhood Advisor, Melanie, sheds light on this…

Children are absorbing this information from social media, the television, the radio and conversations between adults. The way that news is presented can be very confusing and frightening for a young child. Even very young children are aware of real issues in the world and might be affected by what they hear and see around them - even if they are not directly affected by it. As a result, many children are frightened and don’t know what to expect.

Young children experience a sense of the uncertainty even if they’re not old enough to understand what is happening. They’re watching and listening to the adults around them and will be picking up on the emotional tone. Children pick up more than we realise and may internalise these thoughts and feelings leading to troubling or concerning behaviours.

What to Expect

Lots of questions! Am I safe? Will I die? Who will take care of me?

Children depend on their parents and caregivers for a sense of safety and security, especially when there is a crisis. What they need to know most importantly is that they are loved, they are safe, you will look after them and while this feels very big and scary for them, it isn’t for you.

As parents and caregivers, it can be hard to know how to want to respond in a helpful way. We don’t know the answers, and we worry we will deepen the fear or distress for children by saying the wrong thing or conveying the wrong idea. In this case it can be easy to ignore or deflect the questions, which only means children will continue to ask, and their anxiety may rise.

The most helpful response is therefore an honest one. If a child asks, “What is going to happen?”

You could respond by saying, “I don’t know exactly…but I do know that most people are brave, kind and loving and I am going to take care of you always.

When a child is frightened, they need to hear, “I am here…It’s ok to feel scared…you can share your worries with me…I love you and I will keep you safe!”

Recognise that all children are not the same and the response you give isn’t a ‘one size fits all’, you’ll be the best person to know the most supportive response for your child.

That said, here are 7 basic guidelines that can apply to all children:

  1. Observe them carefully and listen to what they are saying, especially during play.
  2. Reassure them as much as you can that you are there for them and will keep them safe.
  3. Answer their questions honestly and directly with as much information as they can process. Remember less is more when they are very young.
  4. Validate their feelings. Assure them that their thoughts are normal, and that many others feel the same.
  5. Remind them that these terrible events are rare and help them to gain some perspective by balancing out these experiences with positive news stories, acts of kindness and love around the world as much as possible.
  6. Encourage them to ask their questions and answer them appropriately for their age and developmental stage. Understand that they will repeat the questions until they feel reassured.
  7. Avoid dismissing their feelings by telling them that everything is fine, and they have nothing to worry about.

Signs Your Child May be Struggling

It’s common for children to misunderstand traumatic events especially when they don’t ask questions to seek support and understanding. When this happens, children can often ‘fill in the gaps’ themselves and make up what they don’t know, which is often worse than reality.

It is very hard for young children to use words to explain how they are feeling, and they are more likely to demonstrate their distress through their behaviour. Some signs to look out for include:

  • Complaining of aches and pains or feeling unwell
  • Becoming upset and tearful for no apparent reason
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • A change in appetite
  • Difficulty focusing or being extra fidgety
  • Unusually quiet and withdrawn
  • Needing the toilet more frequently or having repeated accidents
  • Frequent meltdowns or unusual outbursts
  • Crying and being excessively clingy

If you notice these behaviours, stay calm and use the strategies you used when your child was younger. It’s normal for a child to regress in their development when they are feeling unsettled.

Provide as much reassurance and loving interaction as possible to provide your child with a sense of containment and security.

In younger children, they will often work out their worries through play. They could be playing more fighting games or being more aggressive with their peers. Play is the way they make sense of the world. By playing with them you have an opportunity to talk through any questions they might have as you role-play alongside them. When children are playing, they are more likely to freely discuss their worries. Drawing, telling stories and other creative experiences may also support children to understand their feelings and open up a discussion.

What Do They Know and How Do They Feel?

You may not be aware of the level of exposure your child has to the news. Be aware of what is on the radio and television and the fact that children will be listening to your conversations.

Young children are sometimes unable to work out what is real and what isn’t which might mean they believe they are in danger even if the violence or significant event is happening far away. They can’t always tell the difference between what is close and far away, what’s real and pretend or what is new and what is being repeated on the television. It’s worth bearing in mind that the younger children are, the more interested they are in faces so when they show close up images of people on the television in deep distress, these images can be very disturbing to babies.

Look out for questions like “Are we going to die?”, which will give an insight into this belief. Try to find out why they think this and where they might have heard the information as this will help to allay any fears they have. Be sure to acknowledge their fears rather than dismiss them. They have a right to know what is happening, but this needs to be managed according to their level of understanding.

Adults need to be aware that if they feel emotional about the news, children will pick up on this so try not to overshare information and remain calm while listening to the children’s perspective.

When they seem comfortable, do something else being mindful that you may need to return to the subject later. Snuggle up and watch a film together, read a book or go for a walk.

Be together; distraction and physical connection will enhance the message that they are safe and loved.

And Finally…

As much as you can, reassure your child that they are safe from danger. It might be helpful to talk about all the good people in the world who help others to stop the conflict and support people who have been affected.

It’s important for children to understand that are there are helpers who are kind and brave. When talking to your child, avoid language that implies people are bad or evil. Focus instead on the families and children that need compassion and care because they’ve lost their homes and people they love.

Remind them again that they are safe and loved and we all need to be kind and support each other.