Scrolling through news headlines and social media, the world often seems like a scary place: People doing risky things that could harm themselves, sexual predators, mass shootings, hate crime, wars and the possibility of human extinction due to climate change and environmental disasters.
If such grim world events are anxiety-inducing even for adults, what more children?
As parents, even though our instinct is to shield our children from bad and harmful things, living in a world with unfettered access to unfiltered information means that they will inevitably be exposed to such news at some point during their growing years.
When that happens, what can parents do to help their children process it?
Several months ago, I learnt a lesson the hard way when my younger child — aged nine at the time — went into an anxiety spin.
The trigger? A conversation that my husband, our 16-year-old daughter and I had after learning that Japan was releasing radioactive water from its Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean.
Somehow, our discussion took a dark turn. We started imagining all sorts of hypothetical scenarios on how life might end on Earth.
At one point during our conversation, I made an offhand comment: “If there’s a zombie apocalypse, I don’t think we can survive.”
To us, it was just chatter over the dinner table, but for my nine-year-old child, she was looking increasingly anxious and panicky by the minute.
Our conversation stopped when she burst into tears and screamed at us to stop frightening her.
My girl’s emotional state went downhill from there.
For weeks, she ruminated over what we had discussed and refused to eat seafood.
When pressed to share her feelings, she would tear up and say: “Is the world going to end because we do bad things to the environment?”
I could not alleviate her anxiety even when I explained that we were merely discussing something hypothetical, something that was based on possible ideas or situations rather than real ones.
“But humans are destroying the environment, right?” she said several times when I tried to reassure her.
As my child’s anxiety went on for weeks, I bitterly regretted not considering how she would digest the news and gloomy topic, given her age and sensitive temperament.
After speaking to mental health experts, I learnt that while it is not wrong to keep children informed of what is happening around them and the world at large, one needs to be mindful of how the news is shared with them.
A lot would depend on their age and level of development and maturity.
It also means that negative news shared with a primary school-going child should be very different from that shared with a 16-year-old.
Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist with Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness who treats children, youth and adults, said that young minds might find it challenging to differentiate between an event happening miles away and immediate personal danger.
“We must be careful not to overexpose young children to upsetting news that could create a sense of fear and insecurity about the world.”
He pointed out that teenagers can handle more complex news and engage in discussions about socio-political causes and effects of such events, but a younger child may have difficulty making sense of the details.
“When discussing negative news with a nine-year-old or someone younger, it’s important to focus on instilling values such as compassion and significance of helping others, rather than going into the grim details of the events.
“On the other hand, discussing negative news with a teenager provides an opportunity to encourage critical thinking and awareness regarding world affairs.”
WHEN TO GET CHILDREN THINKING ABOUT BAD NEWS
Mr John Shepherd Lim, chief well-being officer of the Singapore Counselling Centre, said that it is more appropriate to share negative news with children who are seven years old and above — with the appropriate guidance and context.
At that age, they are better able to discern what is real and fake, as well as the probability of situations or crises happening to people around them.
He explained: “According to (Jean) Piaget’s stages of development, from two to seven years old, children are developing abstract thinking — such as thinking about the past or future instead of what is happening before them in the present.
“However, their way of thinking is still considered egocentric, so they are unable to understand that others think differently from them or that events going on around them are not related to them.”
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was known for his work on child cognitive development.
Even among children of the same age, Mr Lim said that every child may have different responses to “scary” world news because they may process information and emotions differently.
For instance, children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) may tend to fixate on the events and struggle to let go of their emotions.
“Therefore, it is important to be aware of the changes in the child’s behaviour before and after exposure.
“Children can experience intense negative emotions such as stress or anxiety from learning about the events, because they may be afraid that it can happen to their loved ones,” Mr Lim added.
If the child continues to show signs of anxiety and distress and has trouble going about his or her daily activities, consider seeking professional help.
HOW BAD NEWS, DEATHLY IMAGES CAN AFFECT A CHILD
Even though my daughter may seem old enough to understand what she heard when we talked about the bad news, Dr Lim said that her fearful reaction suggested that she may not yet be emotionally or cognitively equipped to handle complex global issues at her age.
“While children do develop empathy at this age, they often lack the necessary context to fully comprehend intricate issues, which can lead to increased anxiety.
“Therefore, it is crucial to reassure her and provide a sense of hope and security,” he advised.
He recounted encountering an eight-year-old boy who developed severe anxiety, nightmares and fears of dying after being exposed to scenes of patients dying in hospital and body bags in other countries during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The exposure, together with overhearing his parents discussing their fears of dying from Covid-19, heightened his anxiety.
“A delicate balance is required in managing a child’s exposure to negative news,’ he added.
“We may have to be mindful about not exposing children to potentially traumatising information, but they should also not be overly sheltered resulting in ignorance or absence of a sense of caution.
“Having a balance helps nurture well-informed, resilient individuals who are aware of the world but not burdened by its complexities beyond their cognitive ability.”
HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD PROCESS BAD NEWS
Mr Lim from Singapore Counselling Centre said that parents may guide conversations on negative news by answering questions that their child has without over-explaining the details.
Acknowledge the child’s fear and anxiety, and let the child know that it is normal to feel that way, he advised.
It is also important for parents who feel anxious or fearful about stressful or tragic news to help their children understand that their own feelings are not directed at the children.
Explain in simple terms, for example, “I’m worried because people that we do not know are getting hurt”, Mr Lim suggested.
“Parents can also stick to routines as much as possible to ensure that their child feels a sense of security despite their turbulent feelings.”
Don’t neglect to share good or light-hearted news with your child. For example, news about people saving others.
Talking about what the child can control in their situation to help others is helpful as well, Mr Lim said. For example, making donations or taking part in recycling efforts.
Dr Lim said that focusing on what one has control over is a powerful tool in managing anxiety, especially in a world that can often feel unsettled and unpredictable.
“When we guide children to concentrate on positive actions, such as contributing to a cause, we help them develop resilience,” he explained.
“It’s about shifting from a passive to an active mindset, showing children that while they may not be able to change everything, they can make a difference in their own way.
“This not only helps them cope with anxiety, but also builds a sense of responsibility, self-efficacy and empowerment.”
STICKING TO FACTS, NO FLIPPANT REMARKS
Looking back at the conversation I had with my husband and older daughter, the words we had used such as “radioactive fallout” and “nuclear disaster” — without given the full context of the matter — would have painted a terrifying picture in my younger girl’s mind.
Dr Lim said: “It is important to communicate with the child in a way that matches her level of maturity, using familiar and relatable context to make it easier for her to grasp the situation.”
Telling her not to worry or over-think did not help. What I found helpful was to give her age-appropriate facts and a bit more context of what we had discussed.
For example, we explained the reasons why the wastewater had to be dealt with that way and what the authorities said about the plan.
We also took the chance to introduce the concept of radioactivity in simple terms. For example, how people are exposed to radiation from natural sources in everyday life such as sunlight as well as naturally occurring radioactive materials in the ground, soil and water. Some food items such as bananas, Brazil nuts and potatoes are also naturally radioactive.
On my part, I also learnt to be more mindful about what and how I talk about current affairs and news when my younger child is around. No more flippant doomsaying.
Her anxiety gradually abated.
Recently, I asked her if she still wanted to know what was happening around the world and how I should tell her without terrifying her.
She said: “I want to know. But just don’t start off talking about a zombie apocalypse, okay? How can anyone not panic about that, Mum?”
Right. Guess I’ll just keep my walking dead theories to myself and stick to facts.