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How to talk to kids about war, crime and violence: An age-by-age guide

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Exposure to violent acts in video games or crisis situations in the news can negatively affect kids of any age. And in this state of constant media presence, kids are likely to hear about war, crime, violence, environmental disasters, and other distressing themes before they’re ready. 

That’s why parents need to have a plan for how to discuss these scary issues in an age-appropriate way in order to support and guide your child through what they’re seeing or hearing. Here are some age-by-age guidelines.

For very young kids age 2-6

Even if you don’t think little kids are listening or will understand, it’s important to limit their exposure to scary news—so shut off the TV or radio, and put off conversations about disturbing topics until after the kids go to bed. In fact, when it comes to topics like this, experts advise that parents don’t even bring anything up unless you know they’ve already been exposed to it.

If they have been exposed, ask them about it first to see what they know or what they’ve heard. Then keep discussion of the issue honest but in very simplified terms, and avoid bringing up unnecessarily distressing concepts or details. Make yourself available to answer all of your child’s questions, but it’s okay if you don’t know all of the answers.

Stay calm, and emphasize that these events are rare, your family is safe, and that people are helping to fix the issue. And most importantly, offer physical affection to be sure your little ones feel safe and loved.

For kids and tweens age 7-12

Again, do not feel the need to give kids too much information unless they’re asking a lot of questions or you know they’ll be exposed to news about the issue soon. When you do check in with kids about it, find a quiet time to do so, and let kids ask you anything and tell you how they’re feeling.

When you try to offer context and explanations, avoid negative labels like “bad guys” and “evil,” because they’re not helpful and may fuel more fear. Instead, you can talk about people being unwell and making bad decisions. Be honest and direct, because you want your kids to be able to trust you to tell them the truth. As kids get older you can even discuss the background of such images in the media, why violence is used as a form of entertainment, and whether they think that’s okay.

Kids should be encouraged to express their feelings about scary news in any safe way available to them, such as drawing pictures or making up stories. After tragic events, kids may even want to join you in efforts to help, like attending peace vigils or taking part in acts of kindness for the victims’ families.

For teenagers age 13 and up

Teens are likely to hear about events from various forms of media just as you do, but be sure to offer your own experience and knowledge as a resource. You may be able to help them sort out fact from fiction, or make sure they understand the context of what they are repeating or sharing on social media, for example.

To get teens to open up to you, ask for their opinions on what’s going on. Be sure to respect their thoughts and feelings as well as their sources, but encourage them to expand their knowledge and think independently by asking questions like “Who made this video?” or “What information is missing?”

Teens can understand a lot of the complexities of these heavy issues, so don’t pretend that everything will be just fine. Instead, help teens build resilience by supporting their efforts and desires to find more positive ways to contribute to the world—for instance, joining campaigns to prevent future violence in the community, or speaking up with ideas for creating a more supportive environment at school for processing these types of issues.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.