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What to say to & read with kids when the news is scary

Posted on January 21, 2021 at 6:00 am

By Sheri Boggs

NPR recently re-ran a podcast from last year on what to say to kids when the news is scary. Given how 2020 went, this piece is remarkably even more pertinent now, and the tips offered are still helpful: limit kids’ exposure to the news, give them time to talk about what they’ve heard and how they feel about it, and encourage them to express themselves through play or art.

Some situations in the news, however, might need a little extra help to understand and work through. Books are a great way to open up conversations and soothe fears. Here are a few of our recent favorites that could bring clarity and comfort in a variety of scenarios:

Puppy in My Head: A Book About Mindfulness, by Elise Gravel

For ages 4–8

This new picture book is a fantastic addition to the mindfulness bookshelf, offering an easily understandable metaphor for standing outside one’s brain and watching its antics. Our young narrator explains she has a puppy in her head, and when the puppy gets too excited, scared, or upset, the puppy stops listening or worse, transmits her feelings to her human. The narrator goes on to describe how she magically leashes her puppy with stillness, slow breathing, and patience. Eventually the puppy gets close enough for a big cuddle and all is well again. I love this book for showing how to be compassionate to one’s own mind and Gravel’s illustrations are endearingly goofy.

The Breaking News, by Sara Lynne Reul

For ages 4–8

A family is gathered around the kitchen table planting seeds together when something distressing—it’s never explained what—comes up on the news. What happens next is all too familiar: the mom is distracted by what’s happening on the TV, and the dad keeps checking his phone. The kids, picking up on their parents’ alarm, try to change the mood by acting silly and being extra helpful around the house, but their efforts go unnoticed. Finally, one child notices and waters a drooping plant and this small act leads to others. This brings the family to the realization that while small positive moves can’t necessarily change bad news, they can help us get through it by focusing on the needs of those around us and building resilience. This picture book features a diverse community and is great for kids ages 48.

I’m Worried, by Michael Ian Black

For ages 4–8

Sometimes it helps to make anxiety funny, which Michael Ian Black does to great effect in this bright yellow picture book about a worried potato and the girl and flamingo who try to help. “What are you worried about?” they ask. “The future,” the potato replies. As he goes on to say that anything could happen and begs the girl to promise that everything will be okay, the flamingo hilariously admits, “Um, now I’M worried.” The girl wisely points out that we can’t foresee the future, but we can remember all the times things happened before (like rolling off a counter, or getting one’s beak stuck in a peanut butter jar), and we survived. Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s artwork is expressive and fun, and Black’s text is the perfect mix of realism and encouragement.

Something Bad Happened: A Kids Guide to Coping with Events in the News, by Dawn Huebner

For ages 7–10

Something Bad Happened is a helpful nonfiction guide that breaks down what often happens when something scary is in the news. Adults get quiet (or talk too much), people have strong opinions (or refuse to discuss the matter), and kids can be consumed with worry or not understand how an event is affecting their daily lives. Frequent cartoon illustrations and concrete advice, including relaxation techniques and ways to get fear-inducing images out of your head, make this a reliable and reassuring resource.

When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids, by Abigail Gewirtz

For adults

This is an adult title we blogged about earlier this year and just can’t recommend enough. Author Abigail Gewirtz, an experienced child psychologist, offers examples of typical conversations parents might face on such alarming current topics as war, the pandemic, and politics. Gewirtz offers developmentally appropriate language for parents and calming strategies kids can use to help themselves.

Sheri Boggs

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