How to talk to your child about News

Although news gleaned from television, radio, or the Internet can be a positive educational experience for kids, problems can arise when the images presented are violent or news stories touch on disturbing topics. Recent news about Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in South Asia could potentially make a child worry that a natural disaster is going to hit home, or be fearful of a part of daily life - like rain and thunderstorms - that he or she never even thought about before.

Reports on subjects such as natural disasters, child abductions, homicides, terrorist attacks, school violence, or a politician's sex life can teach kids to view the world as a confusing, threatening, or unfriendly place.

How can you deal with these disturbing stories and images? Talking to your child about what he or she watches or hears will help your child put frightening information into a more balanced and reasonable context.

How Kids Perceive the News
Unlike movies or entertainment programs, news is real. But depending on your child's age or maturity level, he or she may not yet understand the distinctions between fact and fantasy. By the time a child reaches 7 or 8, however, what he or she watches on TV can seem all too real. For some youngsters, the vividness of a sensational news story can be internalized and transformed into something that might happen to them. A child watching a news story about a bombing on a bus or a subway might worry, "Could I be next? Could that happen to me?"

Natural disasters or stories of other types of devastation can be personalized in the same manner. A child in Massachusetts who sees a house being swallowed by floods from a hurricane in Louisiana may spend a sleepless night worrying about whether his home will be OK in a rainstorm. A child in Chicago, seeing news about an attack on subways in London, may get scared about using public transportation around town. TV has the effect of shrinking the world and bringing it into your own living room.

By concentrating on violent stories, television news can also promote a "mean-world" syndrome, which can give children a misrepresentation of what the world and society are actually like.

Talking About the News
To calm children's fears about the news, parents should be prepared to deliver what psychologists call "calm, unequivocal, but limited information." This means delivering the truth, but only as much truth as the child needs to know. The key is to be as truthful, yet as inexplicit as you can be. There's no need to go into more details than your child is interested in.

Although it's true that some things - like a natural disaster - can't be controlled, parents should still give children space to share their fears. Encourage your child to talk openly about what scares him or her.

Older children are less likely to accept an explanation at face value. Their budding skepticism about the news and how it's produced and sold might mask anxieties they have about the stories it covers. If an older child is bothered about a story, help him or her cope with these fears. An adult's willingness to listen will send a powerful message.

Teens also can be encouraged to consider why a frightening or disturbing story was on the air: Was it to increase the program's ratings because of its sensational value or because it was truly newsworthy? In this way, a scary story can be turned into a worthwhile discussion about the role and mission of the news.

Tips for Parents
Keeping an eye on your child's TV news habits can go a long way toward monitoring the content of what he or she hears and sees. Here are some additional tips:

Recognize that news doesn't have to be driven by disturbing pictures. Public television programs, newspapers, or newsmagazines specifically designed for children can be less sensational - and less upsetting - ways of getting information to children.

Discuss current events with your child on a regular basis. It's important to help kids think through stories they hear about. Ask questions: What do you think about these events? How do you think these things happen? These questions can encourage conversation about non-news topics as well.

Put news stories in proper context. Showing that certain events are isolated or explaining how one event relates to another helps a child make better sense of what he or she hears. Broaden the discussion from a disturbing news item to a larger conversation: Use the story of a natural disaster as an opportunity to talk about philanthropy, cooperation, and the ability of people to cope with overwhelming hardship.

Watch the news with your child to filter stories as he or she watches them.

Anticipate when guidance will be necessary and avoid shows that aren't appropriate for your child's age or level of development.

If you're uncomfortable with the content of the news or if it's inappropriate for your child's age, turn off the TV or radio.

Talk about what you can do to help. In the case of a news event like a natural disaster, your child may gain a sense of control, and feel more secure if you find out about donations you can make or other ways that you can help those who you have heard about are in need.