Too Much of a Bad Thing Can Be Terrible

Dear Mr. Dad: My 11-year-old son sometimes watches the evening news with me and he seems genuinely disturbed by some of it. He keeps asking why all these bad things are happening. Frankly, my wife and I aren’t sure how to answer him or whether we should even allow him to keep watching at all. Is he too young to be exposed to TV news?

A: You certainly have a point. It does seem that with the exception of an occasional feel-good story, just about all the news on TV these days is alarming: wars, violence, natural disasters, foreclosures, and other events that most of us have no control over.

For your child, watching or reading about the news is a double-edged sword. On one hand, he could develop a solid understanding of the issues that affect our lives on national and local levels. On the other hand, he could be traumatized by what he sees and reads, and end up deathly afraid that those terrible things will happen to him or his family.

When you’re thinking about whether to pull the plug on the news, there are a few things to consider. First—and foremost—think about your child’s age and developmental level. For preschooler and early elementary kids, there’s no question that their TV watching should be highly censored. But your 11-year-old (unless he’s very sensitive) should be able to watch and understand current events, as long as—and this is big—you and/or your wife watch with him so you can explain what’s going on.

Be honest when he asks questions, but don’t go overboard. At 11, your son is capable of grasping some concepts, but not others. So listen carefully to what he’s asking and keep your answers on point and age-appropriate.

It’s also important to put the news in perspective. Let your son know that although it seems like there’s nothing but bad news in the world, there are plenty of good and positive stories that don’t get reported. Look through your local newspaper for articles about people who are making a meaningful difference in your community and the world.

Whenever possible, try to present disturbing news items in a more positive context. For example, if yet another natural disaster happens, use the opportunity to talk with your son about how people from around the country and the world work together to help the victims rebuild their homes. Show him that even in the face of unbelievable tragedy, people come together to help others. Hopefully he’ll get the message that good things often come out of the worst situations—it’s all a matter of connecting the dots and seeing the big picture rather than just the fragments of it. Going through this exercise will help your son develop some good, critical thinking skills that will come in handy as he grows.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to answer his question about why bad things happen to good people. Plenty of adults wonder the same thing, and there’s an excellent book by that title. Again, a little perspective can go a long way. In a recent interview with Time Magazine, the Dalai Lama said: “I always look at any event from a wider angle. There’s always some problem, some killing, some murder, terrorist act or scandal everywhere, every day. But if you think the whole world is like that, you’re wrong. Out of 6 billion humans, the troublemakers are just a handful.”

It’s not easy, but that’s a message all of us–kids and adults–should never forget.