Combatting Hopelessness in the Age of Bad News

Whether you seek it out or not, bad news is everywhere. We’re constantly bombarded by headlines broadcasting details of the latest catastrophe or impending threat. To make matters worse, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have made it more difficult than ever to come up for air. Be it COVID-19, climate change, or world politics, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by this wave of information on seemingly insurmountable issues. The reality is that this takes a real toll on our mental health. And as hard as it is for adults to cope, it can take an even harder toll on our kids.

Instead of focusing on school and friends or what they’ll do this summer, kids are stressing out about intense concerns like social isolation, getting sick, dying, and and uncertain future. How can parents help their kids cope with these stark realities, even if they themselves might feel hopeless and scared too?

Too much news is bad news

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While you may like to stay informed by watching or listening to the news, be cautious of how and when you’re subjecting your teens to it. There’s a difference between staying informed and being pummeled by negative information on repeat. Small amounts of anxiety can encourage kids to take action but when anxiety levels start to creep up, it has an opposite, paralyzing effect.

Young people are even less equipped to cope with the grim news cycle than older generations. When good news seems few and far between, be careful not to let them lose hope, especially if your child is sensitive or anxious. Consider choosing a different avenue of consuming the news rather than having it on in the house when they’re around: read reputable online news sources away from your kids, listen to the radio or podcasts, or record the evening news to watch when they’re not present. These are all effective ways to stay informed while also protecting your teens’ mental wellness.

Talk about it

While it’s a good idea to regulate your children’s media consumption, this doesn’t mean you should fully sweep these topics under the rug. As a parent, it can be tempting to shield your kids from being hurt, but in this case doing so will not be helpful. The truth is, eventually they will have to face these tough realities. If you have questions about what’s going on in the world, chances are your child does too.

It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers—no one does—but it’s crucial to give them a safe space to ask questions and talk through their anxieties. Empathize and validate the emotions they’re experiencing: “I can understand how these times must feel scary and confusing for you. I feel the same way sometimes. You are safe.” Making sure your child knows that they can safely come to you with their concerns ensures that you’re tuned into how they’re coping and whether they’re getting enough support.

Take action

In many cases, the antidote to anxiety is action. Some days it’s hard to convince yourself that there is hope, but this hopelessness is the enemy of change. One of the best ways to combat a loss of hope is to help shift your kids’ focus to the ways they can take action, and lead by example. Find ways for the whole family to get involved, like delivering groceries to an elderly neighbour or filming a short video and emailing it to a friend. Even encouraging them to brainstorm some possible solutions to the issues on their mind can help energize them and calm some of their anxiety.

Don’t lose sight of the positives As Fred Rogers so wisely said, remember to look for the helpers during tough times and tragedies. Humans are biased towards negative information. This isn’t something to be ashamed of—we all do it subconsciously as a way to try and keep ourselves safe—but it is something to be aware of. Break up the bad news by sharing uplifting headlines as often as you can, even if it means taking some time to seek them out. It’s easy to forget the good things when we’re in the middle of difficult times, but it’s key to help your kids understand that this will change. We are working more towards strong communities than ever before, and we’re seeing advances in modern medicine and technology that were inconceivable even a few years ago. This doesn’t mean that our world doesn’t have major problems, but it means that there are a lot of positive changes to be grateful for.

The reality is, we often can’t control these massive, global issues or stop them from happening when they do. As helpless as coming to this realization can make us feel, we do get to choose how we’re going to respond to them, and how we’re going to equip our children to face them. We can empower our kids (and ourselves) to take action on what’s important to us and help them develop into the citizens our future world and community need.

Dr. Jillian Roberts
Dr. Jillian Roberts
Dr. Jillian Roberts is a child psychologist, UVic professor and mother. She is the CEO & Founder of FamilySparks and the author of Kids, Sex and Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Children in the Sexualized Digital Age.