The news these days is, well, a lot. How do you talk to kids about it?
The news lately has been one crisis after another: the death of U.S. servicemen and women in Afghanistan, the devastation left by the earthquake in Haiti, and Hurricane Ida in the southern United States.
It's hard enough for adults to take it all in, let alone for children. So how can parents help?
It's essential to validate children's feelings and help them feel safe, experts said.
"The biggest thing is to have an open conversation about it. Normalize their feeling, so they don't feel like, 'This is too scary,' and they can't handle it," said Rebecca Horwitz, manager of mobile crisis response and community based interventions at Kenneth Young Center based in Elk Grove Village.
"It's not about minimizing, but allowing for the validation of how the child is feeling."
Betsy Wintringer, executive director of Barrington Youth and Family Services, agreed.
"When they (children) feel like things are out of control, to give them that safety net is critical," Wintringer said.
Providing a sense of safety starts with the basics, Wintringer said: having a schedule; getting enough sleep and proper nutrition; and maintaining balance between screen time and outdoor time.
Family dinners and bed time are good times for conversation, with children more likely to share what's on their mind, Wintringer said.
Both experts pointed out that, besides the harrowing news cycle, this is a particularly difficult time for children, what with going back to school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deciding how much news children should consume, and at what age, is a personal choice for parents, but it's important to be mindful about it, the experts said.
Families could watch the news at a specific time, rather than keeping news channels on all day, Wintringer said. Parents also should ensure that kids are exposed to accurate sources of information. "A lot of that distortion (in news sources) is driving that anxiety," she said.
If kids ask a lot of questions, parents should answer to the best of their ability, Wintringer said. "It's OK to say, 'I don't know,' or 'I'm not sure that's something that your little mind can process, but this is terrible,'" she said.
Parents should teach their children that it's OK to admit to feelings like fear and anxiety, Horwitz said. Keeping such feelings bottled up inside can cause them to come out as anger and acting out, particularly in younger kids who can't quite verbalize what they feel, Horwitz said. Changes in children's mood and behavior, like being more irritable, not wanting to engage in sports, and avoiding family and friends, are all signs something might be wrong, she said.
"Sometimes it's OK (for parents) to go to them and say, 'I noticed this is what's going on. Do you want to talk about it?'" Horwitz said.
Parents can help their kids redirect their worry and anxiety into proactive behaviors, such as getting involved in bottled water or canned food drives for victims of natural disasters, Wintringer said.
"Encourage them to get involved at the community level, so they feel they are taking control back," she said.
It's important for parents to be aware of their own reactions to the news and stressors in general, Horwitz said.
"Kids are sponges, and parents are mirrors," she said. "If a parent is showing extremely disregulated response to stressful events, the child will mirror that."
Another crucial message is that no matter what is going on with their children, parents need to take care of their own needs and mental health, Horwitz said.
"You have to be that strong support for your kids, but if you're not taking care of yourself, it's a lot harder to do that in the most authentic way," she said. "The burnout will become very real, very quick."