These tips and conversation starters can help you talk to kids of different ages about the toughest topics

Mass shootings. Nuclear weapons. A robbery at your local corner store. Where do you start when you have to explain this stuff to your kids?

Today, issues involving violence, crime, and war – whether they’re in popular shows, video games, books, or news coverage – reach even the youngest kids. And with wall-to-wall TV coverage, constant social media updates, streaming services that broadcast age-inappropriate content any time of day, plus the internet itself, you have to have a plan for discussing even the worst of the worst in a way that’s age-appropriate, that helps kids understand, and that doesn’t cause more harm.

We know that heavy exposure to media violence, such as first-person-shooter games and cinematic explosions, can negatively affect kids. We also know that kids report feeling afraid, angry, or depressed about the news. But in recent years – prompted by increased terrorist attacks around the world – researchers are exploring the effects of “remote exposure” to real violent events. Remote exposure is when kids understand that something traumatic has occurred but haven’t experienced it directly. Unsurprisingly, its lingering effects include feelings of grief, trauma, fear, and other mental health concerns. Kids can be deeply affected by images of war-torn countries, bloodied refugee children, and mass graves and need additional help processing them.

These tips and conversation starters can help you talk to kids of different ages about the toughest topics. Get more advice about explaining distressing news, difficult subjects, and sexual harassment (click through the gallery for an age-by-age guide):

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Age two to six

  • Avoid discussion of or exposure to really horrific news. As much as possible, wait until after young kids are in bed to watch the news, and save conversations about heinous subjects, such as Charles Manson or the latest Dateline murder mystery, for child-free moments.
  • Don’t bring it up – unless you think they know something. There’s no reason to bring up school shootings, terrorist attacks, threats of war, or the like with young kids. If you suspect they do know something – for example, you hear them talking about it during their play – you can ask them about it and see if it’s something that needs further discussion.
  • Affirm your family’s safety. In the case of scary news, such as wilderness fires – even if you’re a little rattled – it’s important for young children to know they’re safe, their family is OK, and someone is taking care of the problem. Hugs and snuggles do wonders, too.
  • Simplify complex ideas – and move on. Abstract ideas can complicate matters and may even scare young kids. Use concrete terms and familiar references your kid will understand, and try not to over explain. About a mass shooting, say, “A man who was very, very confused and angry took a gun and shot people. The police are working to make sure people are safe.”
  • Distinguish between “real” and “pretend”. Young kids have rich fantasy lives and mix up make-believe and reality. They may ask you if a scary story is really true. Be honest, but don’t belabour a point.