Inclusion and wellbeing

“Why is there a war?” Explaining scary news to young children

Practical classroom advice for early educators
Child looking at scary news
June 1, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

• Anything from natural disasters to violent headlines can create some tough questions and anxious feelings in your early education settings. We're going to look at how you can navigate those moments.

• If you take one thing away from this, know that it's best to focus on children's feelings. Don't spend too much energy on whether their fear is rational.

• Down at the bottom, you'll find a quick list of top tips for how to help children feel safe, supported and comforted through these events.

For young children, current events can sometimes bleed off the headlines and into their imaginations. When that happens, scary news becomes something bigger and more immediate than it really is.

Whether it’s war, wildfires or a pandemic, these types of events can create challenging situations in early education. When’s the right time to talk about them, and how? What’s your first responsibility to children, when the headlines look grim?

How can you tell them things will be okay if you’re not even sure of that yourself?

If you're feeling a little intimidated, you're not alone. We’ll look at what you can do as an early educator to support children through scary news, and what best practice looks like on the day-to-day in your classroom.

But to start, we’ll look at why some current events can feel especially big and scary for young children.

Early educator explaining scary news to young children

Children’s imaginations make the news scarier

Young children have a blurry boundary between what’s real and what’s not.

As we’ve explored before, pretend play is children’s key tool for explaining the unknowns in their world. Tamsin Grimmer, an Early Years educator, consultant and trainer, says that children’s capacity for fantasy kicks in around 18 months of age, and it’s common for them to keep that blurry boundary throughout all of early childhood.

“At three or four years old, children don’t fully distinguish between fantasy and reality, and they’ll remind you of that,” Tamsin says. “You’ll ask, ‘Are you pretending to be a doctor?’ And they’ll respond, ‘I am a doctor!’ because they’re method actors. To them, that pretend play is quite real.”

But the sense of fantasy that lets children embody a character in play can also make news headlines feel even scarier. To process headlines of a wildfire raging overseas, they might visualize it incinerating their favorite playground. Suddenly, that distant news becomes something larger and more immediate than it really is.

So when we’re helping children understand scary news, we’ve got to check our grown-up brains at the door. Little ones just can’t distance themselves from those scary headlines as well as you can. 

In these situations, our first responsibility is to help children feel safe and reassured.

Focus on children's feelings, not the logic

You can’t reason young children out of their fears.

Saying “Don’t worry, all this is happening far away,” isn’t reassuring, when young children can’t fully separate the real-life news from their magnifying imaginations. What matters most in these moments is how children are feeling.

So in times like this, you’ve got to highlight that it’s okay to feel scared.

“Being scared is a natural response. And we need children to learn that feeling that way is okay — there are times we all feel afraid, and there are things we can do about it, too,” Tamsin says.

You can’t stop children from feeling frightened. But you can make room for those feelings, and give them the tools they need to deal with their fears.

Here’s how that might look in the classroom:

  • “It’s okay to feel scared. When I’m feeling scared, I like to…”
  • “This is a scary situation — lots of other people are scared about this too.”
  • “Do you want to talk about, or draw a picture about what you’re feeling?”
  • “Would a hug make you feel better? Shall we take some deep breaths together?”

If you’re feeling scared too, don’t hesitate to share that. But as we’ll get into down below, you still need to be able to keep your composure in front of children.

Children news

How should we communicate this with families?

Moments like this can test the relationships you've built with parents. It’s especially important to work with parents as partners, to make sure you explore this scary news in a way that works for everyone.

As Tamsin explains, doing this is a balance of respecting families’ views, but also trusting your own instincts as an educator.

“Parents tend to choose child care based on what they know about you, and who you are. So if you’re able to show parents and caregivers how you might address these things, they’ll often trust your expertise and leadership. So it’s good to communicate your rationale for moments like this, and why you’re responding in your specific way,” she explains.

Here are three tips to help you coordinate these issues with parents, and make a plan to tackle scary news as a team:

  1. Offer a why for parents. It’s helpful for parents to know the pedagogical purpose of what you’re doing. Explain why you think it’s important or healthy to explore this issue together with the children.
  2. Say how much you plan to explain. Give parents an idea of the breadth of your conversation. You could offer this as a simple bullet-point list, or even write out a sample script.
  3. Keep communications open. Make it clear to parents that you’re willing to hear their opinions as well, and keep in touch with families after you have your conversation in the classroom. It’s useful to work with parents to understand how individual children are responding to the scary news.

If you’re looking for a great way to communicate with parents, Famly’s own platform comes with a messaging function that makes things easy. If you like, you can give it a look right here.

The big ideas

What if a child asks a question, and you don’t have an answer ready?

When you’re working with toddlers, you know things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes, children might come to you with a tough question, before you’ve really had much time to prepare a good answer.

In that case, here’s what you can do:

  • Briefly answer their question – but don’t give lots of details. Give a short, honest reply, just to address the child’s immediate concerns. Let them know that you want to talk more about it too, but you want to discuss it together as a whole class. If you don’t know the answer to their question, it’s okay to say so.
  • Touch base with parents. If it’s a big news issue, you should reach out to children’s parents, and let them know you’re having these discussions in your classroom. You might start by saying, “Hey, this happened today — I’d like to go back in detail, and talk to children about it.”

It’s okay to be scared — but don’t panic

Scary news isn’t just scary for children. If there’s an event that’s affecting the classroom, odds are you’re feeling it too.

Being scared is okay, and it’s healthy to share your own feelings with children. But in a situation like this, it’s also important that you can lead in a calm and composed way.

“We need to be modelling when we feel all sorts of ways, including being scared. However, you still need to do that in a calm and measured way, so you can help children co-regulate,” Tamsin says. “If you don’t feel you’ve got enough calm to share, you might not be the right person to be talking to children about that particular issue.”

Your biggest responsibility is to help children feel safe and secure. If you’re just not feeling composed enough to lead the conversation, talk to a colleague. Be open about how you’re feeling, and find your team member who’s best equipped to offer that calming reassurance to children.

Early educator talking to children about the news

How much news is too much news?

When it comes to having this conversation, it’s worth thinking critically about how much info will really be helpful to children.

For example, at the time of this writing, there’s a war going on in Ukraine. Young children will likely hear about it, and be curious. But how much does a three-year-old, who might be oceans away from the conflict, need to know?

Tamsin says it’s enough to explain: “There is some fighting going on right now. People are getting hurt, and that makes a lot of people sad. But we will keep you safe.”

Explaining things on a general level, and breaking the issue down into children’s terms can help you keep your news brief simple. When our goal is keeping children feeling safe and comfortable, diving into the what-ifs and grisly details of any scary news stirs up our anxieties more than it keeps us informed.

There might be a lesson in there for our grown-up news habits, too.

Best practice: Tips for tackling scary news with young children

To wrap it up, here is some best practice advice for discussing scary news with children:

  • Focus on feeling safe. This is your number one priority in these moments. From shaping your approach to working with parents, take a moment to check in, and ask if your choices support this priority.
  • Keep the news brief, and in children’s terms. You don’t need to deliver Pulitzer-worthy reporting. Talk about how the events are making people feel, or how they’re affecting other children, but don’t dive too deep into scary details.
  • Don’t sugar-coat terms, or use euphemisms. Though we might feel squeamish about saying people are dying, using euphemisms can often be confusing for young children, which can make the news seem all that more vague and scary.
  • Use stories or puppets if you need them. These tools can help reframe distant news in more relatable contexts, and give children a safe space to process what the scary headlines really mean. Here’s Andy McCormack, with suggestions for children’s books to help process any occasion.
  • Make sure your tone and body language is calm. If you don’t feel like you can keep your composure to talk about the scary news, that’s okay. Tell that to your colleagues, and find someone who’s in a better place to lead the discussion with children.
  • Expect children to ask for reassurance several times. If children keep asking about the event, it doesn’t mean you did a bad job explaining it. They just like to hear that things will be okay. Be gentle, and take a moment to reassure them when they show you they need it.
  • Expect children to process the news through play. It might seem odd to see children playing army when there’s a war on, or playing doctors during a pandemic. But play is children’s best tool to understand their world. Give them time and space to process the news on their terms.
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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