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May 24

How to Support Kids When the News Is Heartbreaking

by Meghan Fitzgerald

"There are moments that the words don't reach. There is suffering too terrible to name.

You hold your child as tight as you can, and push away the unimaginable." —Hamilton

On May 24th, the unimaginable happened for the families of 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School. We are gutted, and we hold these families and teachers close in our hearts. No matter where you are, as a parent or a teacher who loves children and feels the sanctity of schools, you are heartbroken.

As we learned in the pandemic, it can be really hard to insulate our kids from the impact of the news, especially as kids get older and attend playgroups, schools or other group activities. Even if they don’t hear about it outside of home, sometimes kids hear us talking or simply notice our response to world or national events.

So, how can we help our kids when the news gets terrifying? 

Give ourselves space to process the news.

News coverage and commentary can feel like a lot to process on a normal day, never mind when there is something that rocks us to our core. And, in the immediate wake of devastating events, it's hard to avoid related news stories—they're there when you look at your phone or computer, turn on the TV or even just engage with other adults. And, for many of us, we feel on some level like we should be following, feeling and caring when others are suffering so horribly. 

When we do get drawn into news stories, we often tense up and present on the outside as puzzled, saddened and worried. As early as the toddler years, kids learn to social reference—to watch our emotions in order to assess how to feel themselves. We are also our kids’ primary source of safety and comfort, and they are wired to notice and respond to changes in our affect. 

To help kids, and to help ourselves, we can try to compartmentalize the moments we “plug in” and take in the news. If you can, find a quiet time and space to do it, out of the watchful eye of children. This can give you the chance to respond and to process without raising any alarm bells for your kiddos.

Hug, hold and surround kids with reassuring touch.

Positive or pleasant touch, like a hug or a snuggle, prompts our brains to release a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin makes you feel good and strengthens both emotional and social bonds while also reducing fear and anxiety. While positive touch is good for us anytime, it's especially helpful at times of crisis—when fear, anxiety and distress are heightened. You may notice your kids become more clingy or seek physical connection to you during stressful times—all signs a hug is needed!

The fact that hugs are helpful may seem totally obvious, but the science of touch runs deep and is pretty fascinating—and sadly often undervalued in most schools, where touch has become so limited. Interested? Read more from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine

Cultivate calm.

We all have to figure out a way to balance or manage stress, and there are different ways to help kids (and ourselves) cultivate a sense of calm. Spending time outdoors is naturally stress relieving, and you need only two hours per week to start feeling the benefits. Take a walk and "bathe" in the nature of a local forest, park, greenhouse or other space—anywhere you can find earth, sky and other living things. 

Mindful moving and breathing exercises can also help kids feel calmer in the moment and navigate stressful situations. For example, try moving and breathing like lions to relieve tension and channel inner strength in you and your kids! Watch this quick video for a light, kid-friendly how-to.

If kids are aware of the crisis, you can also sit together and breathe in worry or suffering, then breathe out hope for the world. This simple practice can help us process things that are really awful, bring us into the moment and support us in reconciling the good and the bad.

Need more ideas? Read more ways to help kids learn to find calm in whatever storm they're in.

Soothe with a story.

Whether or not the topic surfaces with kids, stories can help to soothe kids and remind them of their resilience and the sources of safety in their world. Our super talented friends at Sparkle Stories have made two sets of their all-time best stories for times of fear and crisis available at no cost to families—and these stories have helped our kids (and even us) reflect and find calm. Check out their Stories for Children In Time of Fear & Crisis collection, including tips for grown ups and stories like Helpers and The Dragon and the Unicorn.

If the topic comes up, don't shy away. 

If kids do ask about a news story, try not to shy away from discussing it with them. In fact, when we avoid a tricky topic, we risk communicating that it is off limits, allowing the fears surrounding the topic to grow. Instead, consider ways to engage in the topic that are supportive of your child and comfortable for you.

Let kids lead the way.

As a first step, we can ask kids about what they know about the topic. And, you can ask them what they'd like to understand more about. As you explore these questions with them, try to suss out what they really want to know. This will help you identify the scope of what they are already thinking about and identify any misconceptions they may have.  

Once you know what kids know and what they are really wondering, you can also craft a response that helps them understand what is going on without giving more information than kids need. For example, kids may be frightened, scared to leave home or scared about heading back into school—or they just might be confused about what actually happened. 

You can prepare school-aged kids with your take on events so they have some context both for what happened and how it makes us feel. Then, they can ask you questions to help them feel more secure if the topic comes up when you are not there. For example, you could say something like, "You might hear other kids or grown-ups talking about a shooting at a school in Texas, so I want to explain what happened. A person hurt some kids and grown-ups, and some of them even died. Hearing about it made me and people all over the world very, very sad and even a bit mad. Most people wonder why somebody would do such a terrible thing."

Be accurate and yet reduce the fear of danger.

It can help to choose language that feels authentic to you and helps kids understand that bad things happen in the world, but that they, themselves, are not in immediate or direct danger. In other words, a supportive response combines an explanation like the one above with some reassurance. Even though, much as we would love to, we can't promise our kids total safety, we can share how rare this is and express our confidence that they are safe. For example you could say something like:

  • "This is a very, very sad thing, but it's also something that almost never happens in a school."
  • "I am confident that you are safe in our school. Terrible things like what happened almost never happen in any school."
  • "Nothing like it has ever happened in any school I've gone to or any schools anyone I know has ever been to."
  • "You are precious to me, and I would not let you go to a place that is not safe. I am confident that our school is a safe place for you, pumpkin."

You can also remind kids that your child's school has many wonderful grown ups and clever things like drills and protocols designed to keep everyone safe. It can take a while for kids (and us grown ups) to process news like this, so stay open and listen for questions or worries to surface in the days to come, too. 

Focus on the helpers.

Mister Rogers taught us that, in times of crisis, we can look for the helpers to find hope and take comfort in realizing that there are caring people who are making a difference. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” he famously said. Every day, in the midst of COVID-19, superheroes take on tremendous risk to themselves in the service of others and the greater good—amazing.

In response to Robb Elementary school tragedy, teachers, police officers, EMTs, paramedics, hospital personnel, and even pilots rushed to save lives and provide immediate care to those who were hurt. It can help for kids to hear about that. Acknowledging the incredible work helpers do helps to remind us that humans are, with few exceptions, good, and that communities support one another. When we are confronted by such an incredibly terrible thing, it can skew our sense of who humans are. 

We can take seeing the helpers even a step further by helping ourselves—either directly (that is, help with the issue that is surfacing in the news) or by just doing something that helps others in our community. 

Focusing on helpers can also foster gratitude, which brings about its own emotional and physical benefits. Science shows that people who make noticing, feeling and showing gratitude a part of their daily routine experience a host of positive effects. Gratitude can not only help you sleep better—which is crucial for kids and parents—but it can also help you feel more positive emotions and be more compassionate and kind. It may even help boost your immune system

Double down on hope, community and time outdoors!

In the middle of it all, try to maintain rituals that help kids feel connected to the people in your community and hopeful about the future. Spend time outdoors to naturally reduce anxiety and enjoy a safe way to connect with others—in the space that we all share.

Though we can't control national and global events, we can help our kids (and ourselves) double down on coping skills and focus on the things that give us strong roots—kindness, gratitude, human connection and physical health.

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Meghan Fitzgerald

Founder

After 20+ years as an educator, curriculum developer and school leader, Meghan has her dream gig—an entrepreneur/educator/mom who helps families everywhere, including hers, learn outside. Prior to Tinkergarten®, Meghan worked as an Elementary School Principal, a Math/Science Specialist & and a teacher in public and private schools in NY, MA and CA. She earned a BA with majors in English and Psychology at Amherst College, an MS in Educational Leadership at Bank Street College, and was trained to become a Forest School leader at Bridgwater College, UK. When she is with her kids, Meghan is that unapologetic mom who plays along with them in mud, dances in the pouring rain, and builds a darn good snow igloo with her bare hands.

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