Helping your kids cope with seeing distressing news online

It is a myth that we can protect our children from the reality of the world. They may have access to all of these sources of news – and if they don’t, their friends do, and they’ll find out about it somehow. Kids are pretty perceptive too: if you are distressed by the news they will pick it up from you. And in any case, to hide the truth from them can just make things worse. So how do we manage our kids’ emotions around scary news?

Psychotherapist Dr Aaron Balick has some great tips for parents to help your children when they feel anxious about news they read online or videos they come across while navigating the web.

Don't hide the truth from your children

While they don’t need to know every last detail, to pretend that everything is okay when they know differently sends mixed messages and can make children even more anxious. You can be honest and age-appropriate with your children at the same time. By being transparent, open, and calm, you are modelling how to acknowledge and handle bad news.

You might say something like 'I know this is a terrible thing happening and sometimes I get upset about it too. But I know it’s normal to feel sad about bad things happening in the world, so when I do, I talk about it, and then see if there are ways I can help, even if just a little bit.'

Put what they know into perspective

First, try to find out what your child knows. They might have heard the news on social media or watched distressing videos on TikTok and likely out of context. So, talk to them – for an anxious child, feeling listened to is half the job. Correct any misinformation they may have absorbed, explaining the facts at an age-appropriate level. You could suggest reliable channels they can go to, like BBC Newsround. Why not sit with them and look at these resources together? Let them ask questions and answer them as best as you can – this will help to put their questions and fears into context.

Teach them where to get reliable news online

If you get involved in your child's news consumption, you can set an example and show them how to be critical when reading the news. Help them distinguish between fact and rumour. Inform them about how to look for reputable news sources and be to be sceptical about viral social media. Use this opportunity to show them how to fact-check and let them know they can come to you for help with that.

If you are looking for a place to get started on this conversation, Own it has a collection for children about fake news.

Normalise feelings of fear, sadness, and anxiety

Bad news isn’t nice to hear. People are suffering, and there are real risks. It is normal to feel worried about these things and talking about those worries helps to process them. It’s okay to share your own concerns too – but in a way that demonstrates you can be okay with your worries without ‘freaking out.’

Let them know they are safe

If fear and anxiety is the main concern, put those concerns in perspective. While the fears are real, most of them are not an immediate danger to your child. Let them know that people are doing their best to keep us safe and that you, as their parent, are too.

If your child feels loved and listened to at home, it will give them the foundations to bear the difficulty and complexity of the outside world better. Building loving, trusting relationships is key – especially in vulnerable times. Let your child know you love them. When they come home from school tell them you’ve been thinking about them and are holding them in mind.

Help them get involved

Children may be concerned about those who aren’t safe: children in Ukraine, for example. This empathy is good and can be developed by looking at ways to offer support. Don’t just stop them from going online, but rather get together on the internet and find ways to help or to send kind and encouraging messages. Similarly, with something like climate change – encourage your child to respond actively, by joining a local group and getting involved. Show them the good that can be done online and help them put their fears into action, so that they can amount to something productive.

Be sensible about how news is consumed

This goes for you too! Avoid overdoing the amount of news you consume and encourage your child to do the same. Perhaps you can choose to look at news together once or twice a day and discuss it after. There is a difference between being informed and being over-stimulated. 

Ensure it's not a one-off conversation

We live in a complex and confusing world and questions are going to arise frequently. It may even be the same questions repeatedly if the underlying fear feels unresolved for your child. Be sure to make yourself available and make time for those questions. The facts are important – but responding to your child’s fears is key. Just saying, for example, “I know, it’s scary,” can do a world of good.

We all wish we lived in a perfectly safe world, but sadly this just isn’t the case. And while we should make efforts to protect our children from inappropriate details and imagery, we also have a responsibility to embed them within the reality of the world in which we live. We can do that by being calm, honest, and truthful with them – while being age-appropriate in what we share. Most of all, receive your child’s concerns with curiosity, acceptance, and warmth. Hopefully, that way they will be able to navigate this complex and sometimes scary world even better.

If you are looking for age-appropriate resources for your child to handle media anxiety, check out this article about dealing with distressing things online.

Newsround has more resources on how to spot fake news about the invasion of Ukraine.

BBC Bitesize Parents' Toolkit has some great advice for helping teenagers process what is happening in Ukraine.