Disaster news, distressing news events and young children
If young children are around while the radio or TV is on, they’ll hear or see the news. They might hear or see the news in social media updates too, and even in newspaper and magazine images.
This means that young children might be exposed to media coverage of natural disasters and other distressing news, like bushfires, floods, earthquakes, pandemics, wars, terrorism, accidents, violent crime and more.
You can minimise the effect of distressing news on your young child. For example, you can limit how much they see and hear. And if your child is upset by something they’re exposed to, talking with you can help your child cope.
Young children need to feel safe and secure to develop well in the early years. You can create a sense of safety in your family by being warm, loving and responsive. Talking with your child and helping them cope with disaster news and distressing news is part of this.
How media coverage of disaster news and distressing news events affects young children
If young children are exposed to media coverage of disasters and other distressing news events, it can affect them, even if they don’t fully understand what’s happening.
For example, young children might feel:
- frightened by what they see or hear
- upset or unsettled by the stress or distress that adults around them are feeling
- worried that they or their families might get hurt
- overwhelmed by constant coverage – they might even think the disaster is happening over and over again.
Young children might become more clingy, have trouble sleeping, become anxious, behave in difficult ways, or not want to be away from parents or other carers.
Young children are more likely to be affected by distressing news events if the event:
- upsets their parents or carers
- affects them personally – for example, if a loved one is injured or dies, or if their home, school or community is damaged
- gets a lot of coverage, especially if there’s graphic video of the event.
Disaster news and distressing news events affect children of different ages in different ways. You can read more about helping primary school-age children cope with disaster news and helping teenagers cope with disaster news.
Disaster news and distressing news events: limiting young children’s exposure
It’s good to be aware of how much news media coverage your young child is exposed to.
You can limit what young children see and hear by:
- not having the radio or TV on
- not using your phone to look at news coverage while your child is around
- not talking about the news in front of your child.
If there’s a particular disaster or event in the news – for example, a bushfire – you could think about how much coverage you need to see while your child is around. If you have the facts you need or you don’t need emergency alerts, it’s often best to switch off or switch to something else.
Talking to young children about disaster news and distressing news events
Talking is the best way to help when your child is aware of disaster news and distressing news events. Your child will be better able to cope if you give them accurate, age-appropriate information and support.
Here are some ideas for talking with young children about things like terrorism, natural disasters, pandemics, violent crime and other disaster news and distressing events.
Make time to talk
The best time to talk is when your child is interested or curious. So if your child asks you a question, stop what you’re doing and respond. If the conversation goes on and you need to stop, that’s OK. But let your child know you can talk again later, and make sure you do.
Try to talk when you and your child are relaxed and rested – for example, in a quiet and familiar place after a snack and a nap.
Find out what your child knows and explain what has happened
If your child has been exposed to media coverage of a disaster or has overheard you talking about it, they’ll probably know something is going on. So it’s always best to acknowledge it. If you pretend that nothing has happened, this could confuse your child and make them feel less safe.
It’s a good idea to ask what your child knows. For example, ‘What do you think is happening at the moment?’ Your child might not have an accurate idea of what’s happening, so you can correct any misinformation and give them the facts.
When you’re giving your child the facts, keep it simple and brief. If you want to talk about how people are feeling, that’s OK. But it’s best to focus on simple feelings your child can understand.
For example, ‘Yes, some people got hurt in the city today, which is very sad. They’re being looked after. The police have caught the person who hurt them, so that person can’t do it again’.
Try to check whether your child understands, ask whether they have any questions and answer them simply.
Check in with your child’s feelings
Tune in to your child’s feelings, and reassure your child if they’re feeling anxious or upset. For example, ‘Scary things happen in the world, but they don’t happen very often. Grown-ups work hard to keep everyone safe’.
It’s OK to tell your child if you’re upset. But try to protect your child from your distress if possible. For example, ‘Some people lost their homes today in a fire, and I feel very sad for them. But I’m OK, and it’s OK to feel sad when things like this happen’.
Move on to another activity
After you’ve talked with your child, move on to another activity that your child enjoys – for example, drawing or reading together. This helps to shift your child’s attention to something else and gives your child time to feel safe together with you.
It’s natural to feel upset about disasters, terrorism, accidents and violent crime. But your child will cope better if you’re coping. If you’re finding it difficult, there are many people you can talk to, including your GP or child and family health nurse. You can also call Lifeline on 131 114 or call a parenting helpline.