When upsetting current events shake kids’ worlds

Moments like the Derek Chauvin verdict can bring out strong emotions in children. Here’s how parents can help them cope.

Children’s worlds were turned upside down in May 2020, when George Floyd died after former police officer Derek Chauvin pinned the Black man’s neck to the ground with his knee for nine minutes. The violent protests that erupted across the country were upsetting to children who’ve been raised to think of such gatherings as peaceful, and the systemic racism the protests exposed were ideas many kids hadn’t thought about before. And though some children have been raised not to trust police officers, others had been—and didn’t understand how a person charged with protecting people could hurt someone like this.

Parents helped children deal with confusing emotions and challenging questions surrounding Floyd’s death. But the news that Chauvin was found guilty of two charges of murder and one charge of manslaughter will likely bring up those emotions and questions yet again.

Troubling current events can be upsetting and confusing to children. Although adults have the cognitive skills to process sudden news-making events like mass shootings, violent protests, plane crashes, and natural disasters, a child’s brain usually isn’t developed enough to quite make sense of something that doesn’t seem right.

Psychologist David Rusbasan says that as children develop, they make sense of the world first through sight, then language, then through more complex connections between what they’ve learned. “Their brain registers instinctual responses first: fear, surprise, and joy,” he says. It’s only as they get older that their brains can process more complex emotions.

Children also have difficulty understanding things that disrupt what they’ve come to understand as “normal,” says counseling psychologist Noelany Pelc. Police officers who behave unsafely, planes falling out of the sky, or groups of people breaking windows in anger are things that break the rules of their world.

“When events threaten a child’s sense of normalcy, it can be upsetting,” Pelc says. “It’s a violation of the world they’re starting to develop in their minds.”

Experts agree that while these conversations with children can be difficult, not having them could have long-ranging effects on how a child perceives and understands the world. Here’s how to talk to kids about events in the news that could be troubling them.

Broaching the topic in ages and stages

With 24-hour news, all-day social media, and plenty of peer chatter, it’s often impossible to shield kids from events that could upset them. That said, Tere Hernández-Acosta, an expert in education media and blended learning specialist at Florida Virtual School, recommends that parents of children under seven should try.

At that age, she says, children aren’t developmentally capable of understanding the entire issue, and therefore have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy. That can cause confusion and a lack of perspective on the importance of events.

“When very young children see multiple video clips, even from different perspectives of the same event, it can appear like it’s recurring multiple times with different people,” Pelc says. For instance, she notes that some children who constantly watched 9/11 coverage believed that planes were crashing all over the country and hurting more people. “It can be traumatizing.”

If very young children are aware of the event, Pelc recommends using simple language, especially for preschoolers. “Say basic things that they can understand,” she says, “like issues of fairness, that everyone is deserving of love and deserves to be safe.”

Elementary-age children also need basic concepts but can understand more nuance. “These children have an understanding of race, for example—they’ve heard terms and messages around that,” Pelc says. So parents can have conversations about both skin color and social injustice.

Experts recommend that before parents jump into conversations, figure out what your younger child knows and understands at this point. “You might want to offer an introduction like, ‘I wonder if you’ve heard or seen x, y, or z,’” Pelc says. Hernández-Acosta adds that this can also help parents know what a child might be misunderstanding as well.

If they’re not familiar with the event, Pelc says parents can still consider bringing up the subject, especially if the event has happened close to home or touches upon an important core value for your family. “Open with, ‘Something important is happening in the world, and we’d like to talk to you about it,’ to kick-start the conversation,” she says.

But keep the conversations brief, allowing time for your child to process what they’ve heard and return to you with insights or questions. “The idea is that some of these conversations will unfold over several days, weeks, or even months,” Pelc says.

Older, middle-school-age children are likely getting their information from outside sources, like social media and their friends. So even though they might not reach out to parents to help them process, experts advise that Mom and Dad help them anyway.

“Sometimes children put together pieces of information they overhear,” Hernández-Acosta says. “Some of the information may be factual, and other pieces of information may be opinion-based. So it’s important to address what information they have first.”

Start by asking them what they’ve read, heard, or seen. Hernández-Acosta also recommends asking how the event has made them feel, then show empathy to validate those feelings, no matter what they are.

Helping your kids feel safe

Upsetting current events often bring out emotions in children related to a couple of different issues: fear of their own physical safety, and confusion when the “rules” of their world—for instance, that police are supposed to protect people or that the U.S. Capitol would never be attacked—are broken.

For instance, traumatic events like school shootings, major hurricanes, or a terrorist attack could make a child feel like something like that could happen to them. Pelc advises parents to provide messages that make children feel empowered and prepared: for instance, by reviewing or practicing a safety plan, or talking about how parents are being kept safe while at work.

But above all, reassure them that caregivers and other adults are there to keep them safe and provide comfort.

“Really reinforce that their environment is safe, and that adults are there to take care of them,” Pelc says. 

Turbulent events that make children question what they’ve been taught about right and wrong—like violent protests or police shootings—can be more difficult to process. Pelc says parents should start by talking about emotions—both the child’s and the people involved in the event.

Hernández-Acosta advises that when discussing why people behaved the way they did, parents should help children consider various perspectives—just make clear that feelings are not facts. Tell kids that without knowing a person’s background or experiences, it’s impossible to understand the motivation behind the behavior.

Then, show kids how to use their own feelings to cope with an event. “Help them use their own emotions to shift from a sense of helplessness to feeling like we could move toward change,” Pelc says. “Help them see that things like their own anger can signal an injustice, or provide a catalyst for action.”

Empowering children to make a difference helps as well. Writing a card to people affected by wildfires, reading about racial injustice, or even joining a peaceful protest will help kids use their emotion to drive action—and that will help them cope.

“Help them identify the problem,” Hernández-Acosta says. “Then help them think about what they can do to get over that hump.”

Most children will eventually process these upsetting current events. But Pelc advises parents to be on the lookout for deeper signs of distress, like stomachaches, aggressive behavior, or isolation. If children seem especially sad or angry, Pelc recommends talking to a school counselor or other health professional.

Upsetting current events often come out of nowhere and leave parents little time to figure out how to help their kids deal. So it’s OK to let them in on a little secret: You’re human, too. “Parents feel like they have to have all of the answers and know what to say,” Pelc says. “It’s OK to take a moment before we talk to our kids to figure out where we are and manage our own emotions first. Parents need support, too.”

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