In a world where information is just a click away, students can be exposed to an overwhelming stream of news. They may encounter heartwarming stories of unlikely animal friendships or acts of kindness between strangers, but they may also witness natural disasters, violence, political turmoil, and global crises.
As educators, guardians, and mentors, we’re entrusted with the crucial task of helping kids navigate through difficult news topics, which can be overwhelming for younger minds to process. How do we talk to students about the difficult news that fills our screens and newspapers and navigate these tough conversations?
The best strategies foster understanding, empathy, and emotional well-being.
Difficult News Conversations Consider Time, Place, and Cognitive Abilities
Kids have an uncanny ability to ask questions at the most inopportune moments and in the least discrete places, neither of which sets the stage well for discussing challenging topics. In these moments, it’s best to acknowledge that you heard the question and will return to the subject later. Saying, “That’s a good question. I’d like to talk about this with you, but let’s wait until our flex period” validates that the student was heard and promises a return to the topic later.
When you do return to the conversation, make sure that you are in a comfortable and safe environment, free from distractions.
It’s also crucial to consider the student’s age and maturity level. Tailor your approach according to their cognitive ability to understand complex topics. Use age-appropriate language and concepts, and avoid unnecessary details that may only serve to increase anxiety and confusion. For example, to describe a violent crime to a child ages 2-6, you might say, “Someone hurt a lot of other people.” For a child ages 7-12, it might be more appropriate to say, “Someone used a gun to shoot people.” For teens, you might say, “Some people wrongly believe that the color of our skin determines our worth as human beings. With this harmful mindset, they sometimes commit crimes that they believe are justified.”
Honesty Is Key
While it may be tempting to shield children from some unsettling realities, being honest and transparent is essential. Provide accurate information, but in a manner that is appropriate for their age. Avoid exaggerating or sugarcoating the facts, as this can erode facts and lead to further confusion.
It’s also important to check your own biases and assumptions. It’s best to omit describing a person’s identifiers such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender presentation, etc. unless it’s relevant to the issue. Instead of saying “An old homeless man hurt a pretty little girl,” you can simply say, “A man hurt a girl.”
It’s also okay to admit when you don’t understand. In that case, you can direct the student to an age-appropriate news source such as News Currents and then invite them to share what they’ve learned.
When discussing difficult news topics, children may experience a range of emotions, including fear, sadness, confusion, and anger. Reassure them that it’s normal to feel this way, and then communicate that someone is in charge. For example, you may say, “Mr. Edwards and I will make sure our classroom stays safe,” or “The police have caught the bad guy.”
You may also connect to an event in their life that might have brought up a similar emotion to remind them that the feeling is temporary and will pass.
Encourage students to ask questions about news topics and actively listen to their concerns. Avoid dismissing or interrupting their inquiries. Attentive listening helps you understand their perspective and their thinking so you can better address their fears and uncertainties.
Limit Media Exposure
Common Sense Media recommends that children ages 2-6 are exposed only to age-appropriate content and programming. Children ages 7-12 are more likely to encounter age-inappropriate content online, particularly as they interact with media more independently. If this happens, ask the student what they understand of the story so you can address any gaps or misunderstandings in their knowledge. Encourage them to think critically by asking questions such as “How does this story make you feel?” and “What does this story make you think?” It can even be helpful to look for positives, such as pointing out bystanders who stepped in to help or generous donors who are contributing money to a cause.
Most importantly, children need to know that they are safe, physically and emotionally. Remind them that there are people who are looking out for their well-being and that many people in the world are working to make it a safer and more inclusive space for everyone.
Talking about the Tough Stuff Is Healthy
Though these conversations can be difficult, it’s important that students know who they can turn to as they process our complicated world. It’s also important to show them that adults struggle at times, too–that’s part of being human. Having empathy and understanding for ourselves and others helps us in the face of adversity.
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