Disaster news, distressing news events and teenagers

Teenagers are more connected to media than any other age group.

This means that teenagers hear and see many different kinds of media coverage of natural disasters and distressing news. This includes coverage of fires, floods, earthquakes, terrorism, wars, accidents, violent and sexual crime, and more.

This information isn’t always reliable or objective. Sometimes it’s opinion rather than fact.

Teenagers are sometimes very smart consumers of media messages. But when disasters happen, it can be hard for them to make sense of all the media messages they’re exposed to. You can play an important role in helping your teenage child interpret disaster news and cope with his feelings about it. 

Young people need to feel safe to keep maturing and developing well in the teenage years. You probably can’t control the amount and type of distressing news your child is exposed to. But your family can still be a secure emotional base where your child feels loved and safe, no matter what’s going on in the rest of the world.

How media coverage of disasters and distressing news events affects teenagers

Media coverage of disasters and other distressing news events can affect teenagers.  

For example, teenagers might:

  • feel worried that they or their families might get hurt

  • feel anxious, especially if they over-estimate the risk of disasters, accidents or crime happening to them

  • feel despairing, down or depressed about the world, especially if they feel that adults aren’t taking things seriously

  • behave more recklessly, spend more time with friends, or withdraw and spend more time alone

  • have difficulty sleeping, concentrating and taking part at school.

Teenagers are more likely to be affected by distressing news stories if: 

  • they’re close to the event – for example, if there’s a nearby fire, or if there has been an attack on a group that their family belongs to, like a religious group

  • they’re personally affected by the event – for example, if a loved one or peer is injured or dies, or if their home, school or community is damaged

  • there’s a lot of coverage – for example, if a video has gone viral on social media

  • they feel powerless – for example, if they feel they can’t influence climate policy.

Not all distressing news will negatively affect teenagers. Large-scale events and loss of life can be harder for them to relate to than smaller events like fatal car accidents. But ongoing, worldwide events like climate change can make teenagers feel very anxious about the future.

Disaster news and distressing news events affect children of different ages in different ways. You can read more about helping young children cope with disaster news and helping primary school-age children cope with disaster news.

​​​Talking with your teenage child about disaster news and distressing news events

You can help your teenage child cope with disasters and distressing news by talking with her about: 

  • what’s happening and how she feels about it

  • where she’s getting her information and how reliable it is

  • what she can do about issues that concern her.

Here are some ideas for getting conversations started.

Choose a good time 

Choose a good time to talk, perhaps on the way to sports training, or over dinner. The event might have affected you too, so choose a time when you’re feeling okay to talk too. 

Ask what your child knows 

Start by asking your child what he knows about the event. You might say, ‘I heard you talking about what happened at school. What have you heard? I heard there was a video of it. Have you seen it?’ 

Explain what’s happened 

Stick to the facts, reassure your child about what has happened, and help put it in context. Here are some examples of what you could say about different news events: 

  • ‘There was a fight between two Secondary 3 boys. One boy tried to attack the other with a knife. No-one has been seriously hurt, but the police are involved. They’ll talk to the school, the boys and their parents.’

  • ‘Yes, our climate is changing, and we’re likely to have more heavy rainfall like this one. But scientists, politicians, business leaders and ordinary people are coming up with clever and creative ways to do something about the situation.’

  • ‘I heard you talking to your friends about that school shooting in America. That hasn’t happened here in Singapore, partly because of Singapore’s gun laws.’

Ask how your child is feeling 

Ask your child how she’s feeling and listen to what she says. Let your child know that her feelings are okay. Your child will probably also appreciate hearing about your feelings and what you’re doing to cope with them.

Here are some examples of how to talk about feelings and reassure teenagers after different news events: 

  • ‘The knife attack on London Bridge was so random. I actually feel a bit scared and vulnerable. I’m going to take the dog for a walk and remind myself that we live in a beautiful part of the world. Would you like to come?’ 

Keep making time to talk 

Even if your child doesn’t want to talk now, make sure he knows you’re available to talk anytime. And when your child is ready to talk, stop everything so you can listen and respond. You might need to check in occasionally with your child if the event goes on for a long time.

If you have responsive, open, non-judgmental conversations about disaster news and distressing news events with your child, you send the message that your child can always talk to you. She’ll trust you to listen when something is worrying her.

Discussing media coverage of disasters and distressing news events

It’s good to talk with your teenage child about how different news media and social media platforms cover disasters and distressing news events.

You could ask your child whether he has noticed any differences among platforms. For example: 

  • Are some media sources more fact based than others?

  • What sources seem trustworthy?

  • How can you tell whether a media source is reliable and trustworthy?

  • Are some just interested in showing gore?

  • Which ones use click-bait just to get users?

It’s also worth looking at how much media coverage you’re both consuming. If you have the facts you need or you don’t need emergency alerts, it’s often best to switch off or switch to something else.

Because teenagers are used to consuming a lot of social media, they might find it really hard to switch off. You might need to talk with your child about how it isn’t helpful to anyone to keep watching distressing images. If you switch off, your child might be more likely to switch off too.

Taking action after disasters and distressing news events

Hearing about disasters or distressing events might encourage your child to take action – for example, she might want to advocate or fundraise. 

Together you could look at what other young people around the world are doing to change things. You could also look at what you could do as a family to make a difference. Or your child might like to take action with his peers. 

It’s natural to feel upset about disasters, terrorism, accidents and violent crime. But your teenage child will cope better if you’re coping. If you’re finding it difficult, there are many people you can talk to, including your General Practioner. You can also call the National Care Hotline at 1800 202 6868.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission