How to Talk with your Young Child about Scary or Sad News
By Christine Hodge
As I watched a news story about another school shooting, this one sadly in my area, I thought about my own children, now 22 and 25, and how I would have handled discussing it with them when they were younger. It is never easy to talk with your child about upsetting news, but especially hard when you yourself are upset and close to tears. How can you explain your raw emotion to your child? Whether they are 3 or 13? I asked a friend Karen Anthony, MA, LPC, IECMH-E® a few questions about this exact topic. Karen is a Mental Health Consultant in the Early Childhood Unit at Oakland Schools.
Christine: Hi Karen, so first, how may your child be acting if they have seen or heard something that has upset them? What can we expect to see?
Karen: Little kids truly look to the adults around them so hopefully the adults are in a space where they are able to control their own emotions, so that kids can feel safer. Some of these you might notice in children in how they act, especially young children (0-6 or so), kids may be wanting and needing to be near an adult. Kids may be outwardly showing fear, some kids’ fears may come out as more aggression. A child who is having difficulty sleeping where they didn’t before, a child who isn’t eating, doesn’t seem to have an appetite or even more of an appetite. You might see a regression in even toileting accidents.
Christine: How do you start? How do you first bring up the subject?
Karen: I think you look for an opening, so you look for that little bit of time when you notice something. You can say to a child “I notice that you seem like you want to always be with me. Let’s talk about that.” Sometimes it’s reading a book together. Look for a book with people. What you are looking for is people with different kinds of expressions on their faces and you point those things out in a book where a child then they might say “I felt that same way.” (Little kids) don’t want to sit and talk, they play and they show you how they feel through their play. I think you have to explain things in very simple terms, and don’t get into too many details. They don’t really need the details. Oftentimes, they just want a quick answer. So even to say, “Something really awful happened. I can see there’s a lot of people who are sad. I’m here. I will always be with you to take care of you.”
Christine: How do you reassure your child that they are safe?
Karen: I like to think of telling them all the things that are in place to keep them safe. So, it could be things as simple as saying that we live in a community with a really great police force and fire department. “We have some really great people in our community that are there for us.” Another good thing is to think about what things they do know they have in school set up that way. If you can just reassure your kids, “You know, they monitor who comes and goes from your school. They’re not going to let anybody in who shouldn’t be there.” And to let them know their teachers are there to keep them safe. Their teachers are people they can count on. It’s really thinking about ALL the things that are already there and in place. You can say the same thing for home. “Here are all the things we do to keep our family and our home safe.” You don’t want to go too far and make them fearful but just let them know all the things that have already been put in place and are there. There’s a lot of helpers out there.
Christine: What about if your child is very young? Do they even know?
Karen: Children can pick up on our emotions as adults. They’re soaking in everything that we do. So, I think it’s important if they see you crying to be able to say, “I’m just really sad right now.” And to let them know that people cry when they’re sad. When you’re two, that’s all you really need. That’s why it's so important (to practice) self-care. It’s really hard to do but you’re not really doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for your child. When your child knows you are calm and you’ve got strategies to keep yourself feeling under control, meditations, deep breaths, taking a walk, whatever it is, the littlest ones are going to pick up on how the adults feel. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your kids. They still need their regular things to happen, so, when their routines get thrown off that’s going to make a child more upset. One of the things kids to look to for safety is routines. They look to knowing the next move is going to happen. When our routines get thrown off, our behaviors get thrown off. And if the adult can’t keep that going, not being ashamed to ask for help. That’s a really brave thing to do, to ask for help.
Christine: When should we be concerned?
Karen: With any kind of scary big event, noticing things have changed. If you see regression in a child, you expect some of that, but when you see it linger on. I think that’s probably your biggest cue. A child who was completely potty trained but then this event happened, whatever it was, and now they are always wetting the bed, if it goes on for more than 4 – 6 weeks I definitely say talk to your pediatrician. If you need more than that, hopefully your pediatrician can help guide you into getting something more. But we certainly can help through the Great Start Collaborative plugging people in with some resources in the community. (greatstartoakland.org or Help Me Grow phone line 844.456.5437 call, text, live chat)
Christine: Anything else?
Karen: No matter what the event is when we are talking about scary things or sad news, that’s kind of what life is. Life isn’t perfect. Normalizing it. And knowing as an adult you can always ask for help.
One of the things I took away from this conversation I had with Karen, is that even if we cannot control everything our children see or hear, we can control our reaction to it and what we say to them. Remember you do have what it takes even if you don’t always feel like it. Take care of yourself and it is brave to reach out for help if you need it.
Here is the full audio of Karen’s and my conversation.
Please find many resources listed below:
- What to Say to Kids when the News is Scary - podcast from NPR
- Helping Kids Navigate Scary News Stories - article from PBS
- Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers
- Addressing Grief
Mental Health Support for Families and Individuals:
- Oakland County 24-Hour Crisis Helpline 800 231-1127
- Michigan Crisis and Access Line (MiCAL) 844 446-4225 (call or text)
- Social Emotional