Helping children process the news

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26 Mar 2018
The news can be a source of anxiety for our children.  Becky explores how we might process scary news with our children.

A couple of years ago the news was full of the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, poisoned by a nerve chemical in sleepy Salisbury – and of the police inspector who was also contaminated by the chemical.  In the wake of the attack, extraordinary measures were taken to protect the public – closing a restaurant and pub, sealing off parts of the city, advising 500 diners to wash their clothes or bag them up until further notice.

For us, 15 years ago, this would have been a big thing – Salisbury is close by, we shop there, we know the streets, we could well have been in that restaurant. My daughter would have been very afraid.  She was an anxious child, and would have had lots of questions – could that happen here?  What if I get poisoned? Should we wash all our clothes just in case? Is it safe to go to Salisbury any more?  In fact, she probably would have refused to go to Salisbury! One of our jobs as parents is to help our children cope with living in a broken world where, even though we are children of a loving God, bad things can happen to us and around us. 

Every family will deal with this differently, but these are some of the things I learned that helped me parent my anxious child.

How to process scary news with your anxious child – practical things I learned

  • Do they actually need to know the news? I remember reading (and I’ve no idea if it’s true, but it made me think) that children can’t process the news like an adult until they are about 10 years old – so if they hear about a school shooting or a tsunami in another part of the world, they don’t have the ability to put it in context and may expect it to happen here. You know your child best – is this something you want them to know about? Particularly when they are small, you can protect them from the news you don’t think they need to hear.
  • Be aware of how they are getting the news – they may be hearing about it from others or just picking it up from background news programmes on the radio or social media.   
  • There are events you need your child to know about, or you realise that they will hear about them anyway, but they don’t need to see or know everything. My daughter was 8 when 9/11 happened – and I was horrified to find out the next day that many of her classmates had unnecessarily watched hours of coverage, including repeats of people jumping from buildings, hearing the last phone calls from people in the Twin Towers, seeing the distress of survivors. Children’s newspapers and broadcasts can be very helpful in delivering news in an appropriate way. It can help too to watch the news with your child so you know what they are seeing and chat about it. 
  • When your child is anxious, hear their fears fully – what are they afraid of?  
  • You can never promise nothing like this will ever happen to them, but you can put it in context – we don’t have an earthquake fault line like Japan / you don’t walk to school on your own / people can’t just go out and buy guns in this country.
  • Statistics can’t promise protection but can help – the old adage that you’re safer flying in a plane than crossing the road is a well-worn one in our house!

How to process scary news with your anxious child – helping them see God in it 

  • Children can often absorb the truths that God loves us and God protects us and equate that (consciously or subconsciously) with meaning that God will never let anything bad happen to me or people I love. This can then add to their anxiety or cause confusion because they don’t understand where God fits into the world if he allows this bad thing to happen. Children need to know the whole gospel, the whole story of God, the world and us, so that they can put bad things into their correct context.  There’s an article here that explain that, as well as a chapter explaining this in ‘Parenting Children for a Life of Purpose’. 
  • Share stories of times when you’ve been afraid that bad things might happen to you. When I was first a single parent, I had many sleepless nights worrying that I would die and leave my daughter alone, and later on I was able to share with her how God had been with me through that. Tell them what you felt like, how you dealt with it, how you felt about it, where was God in it.
  • Explore stories from the Bible where bad things happened to people. Joseph, Job, Samson, David, Jesus himself. Some of them have happy endings, like Moses, but they still went through bad stuff on the way. How did they feel? What was God doing?
  • Share some Psalms where David talks about his fears with God – Psalms 22, 23, 27, 34, 46, 88, 139 for example. What might God be saying to us through these?

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Image acknowledgements

Police ©  Matty Ring licensed under CC 2.0