Disaster news, distressing news events and teenagers
Teenagers are more connected to media than any other age group.
This means that teenagers hear and see many kinds of 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.
This information isn’t always reliable or objective. Sometimes it’s opinion rather than fact.
Teenagers are sometimes very smart consumers of media messages. But when disasters happen, it can be hard for them to make sense of all the media messages they’re exposed to. You can play an important role in helping your teenage child interpret disaster news and cope with their feelings about it.
Young people need to feel safe to keep maturing and developing well in the teenage years. It might be hard to control the amount and type of distressing news your child is exposed to. But your family can still be a secure emotional base where your child feels loved and safe, no matter what’s going on in the rest of the world.
How media coverage of disasters and distressing news events affects teenagers
Media coverage of disasters and other distressing news events can affect teenagers.
For example, teenagers might:
- feel worried that they or their families might get hurt
- feel anxious, especially if they over-estimate the risk of disasters, accidents or crime happening to them
- feel down, depressed or despairing about the world, especially if they feel that adults aren’t taking things seriously
- behave more recklessly, spend more time with friends, or withdraw and spend more time alone
- have difficulty sleeping
- have difficulty concentrating and engaging at school.
Teenagers are more likely to be affected by distressing news stories if the issue or event:
- is close to them – 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 or peer is injured or dies, or if their home, school or community is damaged
- gets a lot of coverage – for example, if a video has gone viral on social media
- makes them feel powerless – for example, if they feel they can’t influence climate policy.
Not all distressing news will negatively affect teenagers. Large-scale events and loss of life can be harder for them to relate to than smaller events like fatal car accidents. But ongoing, worldwide events like climate change can make teenagers feel very anxious about the future.
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 primary school-age children cope with disaster news.
Talking with your teenage child about disaster news and distressing news events
You can help your teenage child cope with disasters and distressing news by talking with them about:
- what’s happening and how they feel about it
- where they’re getting information and how reliable it is
- what they can do about issues that concern them.
Here are some ideas for getting conversations started.
Choose a good time
Choose a good time to talk, perhaps in the car on the way to sports training or over dinner. The event might have affected you too, so choose a time when you’re feeling OK to talk too.
Ask what your child knows
Start by asking your child what they know about the event. You might say, ‘I heard you talking about what happened at the high school. What have you heard? I heard there was a video of it. Have you seen it?’
Explain what’s happened
Stick to the facts, reassure your child about what has happened, and help to put it in context. Here are some examples of what you could say about different news events:
- ‘There was a fight between two Year 9 kids. One tried to attack the other. No-one has been seriously hurt, but the police are involved. They’ll talk to the school, the kids and their parents.’
- ‘Yes, our climate is changing, and we’re likely to have more droughts like this one. But scientists, politicians, business leaders and ordinary people are coming up with clever and creative ways to do something about the situation.’
- ‘I heard you talking to your friends about that school shooting in America. That hasn’t happened here in Australia, partly because of Australia’s gun laws.’
Ask how your child is feeling
Ask your child how they’re feeling and listen to what they say. Let your child know that their feelings are OK. Your child will probably also appreciate hearing about your feelings and what you’re doing to cope with them.
Here are some examples of how to talk about feelings and reassure teenagers after different news events:
- ‘I’ve been thinking about the floods, and the people who’ve lost their homes. I feel sad for them, but I’m also grateful to the volunteers who are doing so much to help. How are you feeling?’
- ‘The story about the man on parole who assaulted that girl is very upsetting. I’m relieved that he has been remanded without bail, and I hope she’s getting the support she needs.’
- ‘The knife attack that we heard about on the news was so random. I feel a bit scared and vulnerable. I’m going to take Pup for a walk and remind myself that we live in a beautiful part of the world. Would you like to come?’
Keep making time to talk
Even if your child doesn’t want to talk now, make sure they know you’re available to talk anytime. And when your child is ready to talk, 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 have responsive, open, non-judgmental conversations about disaster news and distressing news events with your child, you send the message that your child can always talk to you. They’ll trust you to listen when something is worrying them.
Discussing media coverage of disasters and distressing news events
It’s good to talk with your teenage child about how different news media and social media platforms cover disasters and distressing news events.
You could ask your child whether they’ve noticed any differences among platforms. For example:
- Are some media sources more fact based than others?
- What sources seem trustworthy?
- How can you tell whether a media source is reliable and trustworthy?
- Are some just interested in showing gore?
- Which ones use click-bait just to get users?
It’s also worth looking at how much media coverage you’re both consuming. 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.
Because teenagers are used to consuming a lot of social media, they might find it hard to switch off. You might need to talk with your child about how it doesn’t help anyone to keep watching distressing images. And if you switch off, it sets a good example for your child and they might be more likely to switch off too.
Taking action after disasters and distressing news events
Hearing about disasters or distressing events might encourage your child to take action – for example, they might want to advocate or fundraise.
Together you could look at what other young people around the world are doing to change things. You could also look at what you could do as a family to make a difference. Or your child might like to take action with their peers.
It’s natural to feel upset about disasters, terrorism, accidents and violent crime. But your teenage 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. You can also call Lifeline on 131 114, or call a parenting hotline.