An expert shares the top six tips for explaining scary or difficult news stories to kids.

I am a huge fan of news media for reasons of both work and pleasure.

I like to know what is happening across the world from global politics to Kardashian scandals; but it took seeing the news through my eldest son Toby’s eyes to realise it is not always a positive influence.

When he was five-years-old he saw a snippet of the 7.30 report just before bedtime that involved a protest overseas. The angry voices on screen upset and unsettled him and while it was hardly the worst story of the night, it made my husband Jules and I think about the type of media we consumed around him.

I started turning down the car radio when the news came on and making sure he was well and truly in bed (and not hiding in the corridor), before we switched on the television at night. It was a no-brainer.

Toby is now eight years old and in Year Three at school. He is smart with plenty of friends and he is also a very inquisitive reader. Occasionally he will see a news story on my laptop that he questions or he will overhear kids at school talking about something he doesn’t understand.

A couple of weeks ago and perhaps in light of all the recent media around Cardinal Pell and Michael Jackson, he asked me what the word ‘rape’ meant. It took me by complete surprise. I wanted to help him understand the meaning without scaring him. He knew it was a ‘bad word’ but he wanted to understand why.

Jules is a GP and he is far better than I am at the serious questions, but Jules wasn’t home so it was up to me to explain. I kept my cool and told Toby that yes, it was a very bad word, relating to when someone forces themselves onto another person for sex without their agreement.


I emphasised how awful it was for the victim and then asked if he had any questions. I mentioned the importance of consent and after a few nods of understanding, he changed the subject. I dissected the encounter over a glass of wine with Jules that night, hoping I had done the right thing.

It certainly wasn’t the first time Toby had asked about tricky subject matter, but the conversation did get me thinking about the best ways to engage a child in an age-appropriate way on other serious issues. Was I right to be so factual or should I have been less specific?

I spoke to Giuliett Moran, psychologist, mum, and founder of Empowering Parents, for her advice and professional opinion. Here are Giuliett’s top six tips for dealing with difficult or scary news stories with kids.

1. Get the background first. Begin by asking a child what they already know or what they have heard about the incident. This is great for getting background on their current understanding, informing you about how much detail you’ll need to explain.

2. Keep it age-appropriate but be honest. Tell your child the truth, without graphic details, at a level that they can understand and comprehend.

3. Talk about all the feelings. Acknowledge their feelings and discuss your own. It is understandable that they may feel sad, scared or worried and admitting that you also feel that way at times, helps them to normalise their feelings. You might be able to use it as an opportunity to discuss how you cope and work through your feelings.


4. Provide reassurance. Finish a conversation by providing your child with reassurance that you will do everything possible to keep them safe. For example, you could tell them about your smoke detectors installed to prevent a fire at home, and then talk about practical strategies they can use when they feel scared or fearful of a situation. Also reassure them that you are available to listen to their concerns and answer any questions that they might have.

5. Focus on the positives. Look for any good that has come from a situation and focus on how rare situations such as aircraft disasters are. Discuss how first-responders help on the scene, how communities band together in times of hardship and how changes are implemented at higher levels to prevent further tragedies.

6. Monitor signs that a child is not coping. Any persistent change in sleep habits, appetite, behaviours or concentration may be a sign that your child requires additional support to work through their feelings. Start by getting in touch with your GP if you have any additional concerns.

How do you handle the difficult chats with your kids? Do you have any tips for Mamamia readers you might like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below if so.