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The TIME for Kids Guide to Talking About Tough Topics

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At TIME for Kids, one of our goals is to help equip children with the skills they need to navigate the news. We also want to make sure educators and families feel supported in this mission. Below, you’ll find two interviews that ran in TFK. The first talks to children about how to handle their feelings if the news is upsetting. The other looks at how kids can help stop cycles of anger and misunderstanding. There is also a set of resources to help you talk about tough stories in the news with the children in your life.

Gun violence is an all-too-frequent reality in our country. One way to create change is to build a community in which our children feel safe and validated. Let’s work together to achieve this goal.

—Stacy Bien, Curriculum Director, TIME for Kids

Child Mind Institute

Share Your Feelings

If something in the news makes you feel worried or upset, what should you do? TFK asked an expert, Dr. Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute. Here, he offers some advice.

I hear people talking about the news. How do I know whom to trust and what to believe?

Turn to the trusted adults in your life—parents, teachers, and coaches—to speak about topics that concern you. If a friend shares information, make sure the source isn’t just someone’s opinion passed along through social media. Seek information from reliable sources, such as newspapers. Your school librarian can help you assess a news source’s trustworthiness if you are unsure.

I saw a TV report that upsets me. What can I do?

Sometimes, when you go on the Internet or you watch news on TV, it’s not completely accurate. The news on TV is fast-paced. When sad news affects our nation, all of us need time to understand it and process it. The best people to help you do that are your parents, teachers, and other adults you trust.

The news made me feel sad. What should I do?

Sadness is a normal emotion. Even someone strong and powerful weeps when he or she is very sad. It’s part of being human that sad events make us personally feel sad. That doesn’t mean we need to fall apart. We just have to acknowledge that we’re sad and move forward.

The news made me feel worried. What should I do?

When we have upsetting news, people respond in different ways. There are certain kids who are very private and don’t want anyone to see how they feel. Other kids share their worries. If you feel worried, talk to your parents and teachers. Getting information can make you feel more comfortable.

I spoke to my parents and teachers, but I still feel worried. What else can I do?

If you’re still very nervous, another way to feel better is to take part in activities that help others. Go with your parents to a soup kitchen, or think of ways that you or your class can help other kids. Also, make sure to keep your normal routine. Go to sleep at the right time, play with your friends, and go to the movies. It’s okay to feel sad, but it’s not good to stop doing the things you usually do.

Jessie English for Unicef USA

Show Respect, Model Kindness

Understanding and inclusion start with you. TFK talked with Caryl M. Stern, president and CEO of UNICEF U.S.A. and coauthor of a book called Hate Hurts. Here’s her advice on how to handle hurtful comments and find common ground.

Be a part of creating the world you want. That means thinking and planning ahead. Do not wait until hate happens to talk about hate.

There’s no time limit for responding to a hurtful comment. You don’t have to respond right in the moment. Sometimes, you are so angry or hurt or shocked that you can’t respond. Or sometimes, it would be such a public response that you would humiliate the offender. That might not be the best way to get them to hear what you have to say. Make a plan as to when you are going to respond, and follow through with it.

Open the ears of the listener. Start by pointing out why you’re bothered and how you feel. Make sure the person knows that they matter enough for you to talk to them.

Use I statements, not you statements. Explain to the offender that you are not talking about what they said. Explain that you are talking about how what they said made you feel. You are not trying to get them to defend what they said. You are trying to explain to them why it was hurtful. You can’t necessarily change a person in one conversation. And you can’t ask someone to change who they are. But you can ask them to change the way they act around you.

Learn how to ask questions. I consider there to be two basic diversity skills. One is how to ask questions, the second is how to give answers. You want to be able to ask about things you don’t understand, but you need to know how to ask in the right way. Part of that comes from learning how to give answers and finding the right vocabulary.

Learn about cultures you know nothing about. As a class project, look at what’s happening in your community to find out what’s different from what you normally do. What festivals, concerts, or plays are happening? How many different houses of worship are there? See if each of you can get the adults in your life to take you to one of them.

Peter Hapak for TIME

Parent Resources

Our kids are exposed to so much more information than previous generations were. How do you explain to them the scary and difficult events that they no doubt hear about, without making them anxious or fearful? Our immediate instinct is to shield our children from such events. While this is perfectly natural, especially as parents are also having difficulty wrapping their heads around the events, it might not always be the best approach, according to experts.

Figuring out what your child has learned and answering his or her questions in understandable terms is usually the best approach, according to Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute: “By initiating this dialogue and allowing and encouraging your children to express their feelings, you can help them build healthy coping skills that will serve them well in the future.”

It’s important to stay calm as you talk through the events. Children pick up their cues from their parents, so if you act anxious, they will be anxious. Psychologist Paul Coleman, author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces, says parents should follow these SAFE steps.

Search for hidden questions or fears. Ask what else is on their mind about what happened, what their friends say about it and what their biggest worry is right now.

Act. Keep routines going—homework, bedtime rituals, and so on—because they’re reassuring and distracting. “It is a good time to have them do kind things for others,” says Coleman. Little things, like opening a door for a stranger, “remind them that there are kindnesses in this world.”

Feel feelings. “Let them know their feelings make sense,” says Coleman. Let them talk it out and show that you understand.

Ease Minds. After you’re sure they’ve talked through their fears, you can assure them of their safety.

Every week, TIME puts out a free parenting newsletter that quickly summarizes the latest interesting and important parenting stories of the week. It’s a compendium of new studies, different approaches, and a shared conversation about the joys and difficulties of parenting. I invite you to subscribe, at time.com/newsletters. In the meantime, rest assured that the key thing your child needs from you in difficult moments is your time. If you’re there, your child will sense that not much can go wrong. — Belinda Luscombe, TIME Editor at Large

Selected Additional Resources

Explaining the News to Our Kids

Tips for addressing disturbing news with children in different age groups

Table Talk: Gun Violence and Mass Shootings

Guidelines for families to understand and discuss violence with children

Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers (Available in 10 languages)

A guide for adults on creating a sense of security in response to a violent event

Helping Your Students Cope with a Violent World

Strategies to help children understand their emotions when they are exposed to hard news

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to TIME for Kids at tfkeditors@time.com