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Disaster news and distressing news events: supporting teenagers
Teenagers are more connected to the 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 bushfires, 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.
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 in 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 bushfire, 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.
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 in the car on the way to sports training, or over dinner. The event might have affected you too, so choose a time when you’re feeling OK 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 the high 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 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 droughts 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 school shootings. That hasn’t happened often in other countries, partly because of 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 OK. 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:
- ‘I’ve been thinking about the fires, and the people who’ve lost their homes. I feel sad for them, but I’m also grateful to the volunteer firefighters who are doing so much to help. How are you feeling?’
- ‘The story about the man on parole who assaulted that girl is very upsetting. I’m relieved that he has been remanded without bail, and I hope she’s getting the support she needs.’
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.
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.