Talking about scary stuff in the news

Digital media means we increasingly witness wars, terrorist attacks, accidents and natural disasters as they happen – through our phones, TVs and social media feeds. And while this coverage helps us stay informed about what’s going on, it can be distressing – especially for kids.

It’s pretty much impossible to shield children completely from upsetting news. And keeping things secret can mean kids get snippets of information, adding to their sense of anxiety.

Your best option is to monitor what kids are seeing and reading, and support them to understand what’s happening. 

5 tips for parents and guardians

1. Be aware of what kids are watching

  • On average, adults in Australia spend nearly 100 hours watching TV or browsing online – and that’s not including work-related stuff. Think about how often kids are in the room or watching over your shoulder, and be proactive about switching off when they’re around.
  • Put some age-appropriate boundaries around how much news kids are seeing. For example, children under the age of six should have very limited or no access to upsetting media. As kids mature, supervise what they’re watching and talk through what you’re seeing together. 

2. Help them understand

  • Encourage your child to ask questions about what they’re seeing.
  • Explain that sometimes scary things happen in the world and it can be hard to understand why – and it’s really normal to feel scared and worried. 
  • Often children aren’t able to fully understand what’s happening, and this can add to their distress. It can help to explain things in concrete ways, such as by showing them on a map how far away the event was from your neighbourhood, or explaining that what they’re seeing on TV is a replay of something that happened before, not a new incident.

3. Provide plenty of reassurance

  • Traumatic events can challenge our belief that the world is a safe place – whether we’re five or 50. Reassure your child that you’re looking out for them and help them see that these kinds of scary things happen very, very rarely.
  • Stick to your regular family routines – these help kids feel secure. 

4. Focus on the helpers

  • Help your child see the positives – that there are lots of people working to fix the frightening situation and stop it happening again. Point out the helpers – the emergency workers and volunteers – as examples of the goodness in people. 
  • Find something they can do to make a difference, such as writing a thank you letter to emergency workers or donating pocket money to a charity. 

5. Take care of yourself

You don't need to be directly involved in a tragedy to feel its effects. It's important to take care of yourself so you can continue to support your family.

  • Allow yourself to feel. It’s a normal reaction to upsetting news. It shows compassion.
  • Limit how much news you watch if you’re becoming pre-occupied or feeling overwhelmed. 
  • Talk to others about how this event has affected you. 
  • Calm yourself. Go for walk. Take deep breaths. Do things that relax you.
  • Think helpfully. Tragic things happen but remember most of the time we’re safe and most people are good. 
  • Take care of yourself. Exercise. Sleep. See friends and family. Do things you enjoy. 
  • Re-direct your energy into things that will make a positive difference. Donate money. Volunteer your time. Raise awareness about the response efforts and available support.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional support if you need it. 

Children often learn how to feel about something by watching and modelling adults’ reactions. Share your feelings, but show that you’re managing them. If you’re feeling upset or distressed, talk privately with another adult you trust or a health professional.  

Changes in behaviour – what to look for

When children are confronted with something stressful, like news of a traumatic event, they’re not always able to express their feelings in the same way adults can. Instead, kids show how they’re feeling through their behaviour.

Common reactions include:

  • becoming clingier
  • having more tantrums or outbursts
  • acting younger than their age
  • not sleeping as well  
  • being more irritable
  • talking more about death and dying.

If your child is acting differently and you’re worried about their reaction to distressing news, seek support from a health professional or contact the Beyond Blue Support Service

Find out about support options
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