Disaster news, distressing news events and school-age children
School-age children hear and see TV, radio, social media and other media coverage of natural disasters and distressing news. This includes coverage of bushfires, floods, earthquakes, terrorism, wars, accidents, violent and sexual crime, the COVID-19 pandemic and more. They also hear adult conversations about disasters and other distressing news.
You might not be able to shield your child completely from disasters and distressing news. But talking with your child can help them understand and cope with these events.
Children need to feel safe and secure to keep growing and developing well in the primary school years. You can create a sense of safety in your family by being warm, loving and responsive. This includes being available to talk about disaster news.
How media coverage of disasters and distressing news events affects school-age children
Children won’t always understand the news on the radio, TV and social media, but media coverage of disasters and other distressing news events can affect them.
For example, children might feel:
- frightened by what they see or hear
- upset 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.
Children are more likely to be affected by distressing news stories if the event or issue:
- is close to them in some way – for example, if there’s a nearby bushfire, or if there has been an attack on a group that their family belongs to, like a religious group
- 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, if video shows distressed people, pets and other animals, or if coverage includes emotional commentary
- reminds them of a distressing experience they’ve had in the past
- makes them feel powerless – for example, if they feel they can’t influence adults to do something about climate change.
Children’s reactions to disaster news and distressing news events are also affected by how:
- big the event is
- long the event goes on for
- many people are affected.
But sometimes large-scale events and loss of life are harder for children to relate to than smaller events. For example, a child might be more upset about the death of a mother of young children than the deaths of thousands in a mudslide.
Disaster news and distressing news events affect children of different ages in different ways. You can read more about helping young children cope with disaster news and helping teenagers cope with disaster news.
Talking with school-age children about disaster news and distressing news events
Your child will cope better if they have accurate, age-appropriate information about disasters and other distressing events in the news. Your child also needs plenty of opportunities to ask questions and talk about feelings.
Here are some ideas for talking with school-age children about things like terrorism, natural disasters, violent crime, climate change and other disaster news and distressing events.
Make time to talk
Find the right time to talk with your child. If your child has heard distressing news at school, this might be when they get home. Or your child might want to talk at bedtime. It’s always best if you make plenty of time to talk and give your child your full attention.
If the event has also affected you, try to choose a time when you’re feeling OK to talk too.
Acknowledge what has happened and find out what your child knows
It’s always best to acknowledge that a disaster or tragedy has happened. If you pretend that nothing has happened, your child could feel confused and unsafe. Your child might also worry about things by themselves.
It’s a good idea to start by asking your child what they know and whether they have any questions. For example, ‘On the news this morning, there was a report about a man with a gun in the city. Were people at school talking about that? What were they saying?’
Explain what has happened
Stick to the facts, reassure your child about what has happened, and try to give some context. Here are some examples of what you could say about different news events:
- ‘A man in the city attacked some people, and unfortunately one person died. We’re not sure why the man tried to hurt people, but the police have arrested him. He’s locked up so he can’t hurt anyone else.’
- ‘It hasn’t rained in parts of Australia for a very long time, and many families are struggling to pay bills and look after their farms. This has made them sad and worried. This story was about some of these families.’
- ‘I heard you talking with your friends about how the earth is getting hotter. Climate change is a problem, and there are many very smart scientists working on it.’
Talk about feelings
Ask your child how they’re feeling and listen to what they say. Let your child know that it’s OK to feel worried, angry or sad, and that over time they’ll start to feel better. You can also ask your child what they need to feel better. It might reassure your child if you share your own feelings and tell your child what you’re doing to cope with them.
Here are some examples of how to talk about feelings and reassure children after different news events:
- ‘I feel really sad for the people whose homes have burned down in the bushfires. I’m going to take Pup for a walk and think about how I could help. Would you like to come?’
- ‘The story about the man who hurt those children is very upsetting. The man is locked away now, and good people are looking after the children. I’m trying to think about the good people.’
- ‘It’s really scary about the people with the hostages in the city. It’s good to remember that the police are trained to handle this situation. Let’s have a big hug to help us feel better.’
Keep making time to talk
Let your child know that you’re always available to talk. And when your child wants to talk, make sure that you stop everything so you can listen and respond. You might need to check in occasionally with your child if the event goes on for a long time.
If you encourage open conversations about disaster news and distressing news events, your child learns they can always talk to you. Your child will understand that you’ll be there to listen when something is worrying them.
It’s important to monitor and limit how much media coverage of distressing news events both you and your child are seeing. It’s not helpful for anyone to watch distressing images over and over again. 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.
Discussing media coverage of disaster news and distressing news events
Major news events are often covered in children’s news programs like Behind The News. You could watch a program like this together and discuss it afterwards.
With older school-age children and pre-teens, you could talk about how rare events are considered more ‘newsworthy’ and that’s why they’re on the news. It’s also why we don’t hear about ordinary events on the news.
You could also talk about differences your child has noticed in media coverage. For example, are some radio or TV news programs more fact based than others? Do some seem more interested in the most sensational parts of the event? Do some presenters calmly give you the facts, whereas others seem very emotional?
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 things difficult, there are many people you can talk to, including your GP. You can also call Lifeline on 131 114 or call a parenting helpline.