The world is full of scary news and, as much as we would like to shield our children from it we can’t always do so. As careful as I think I’m being when there is a crisis in the news, my small kids inevitably seem to pick-up on events like the Boston Marathon bombing, devastating weather events, riots in Baltimore and of course, most recently, the horrific shootings in Charleston. They find out about these events by listening snippets of adult conversations when we are out, accurately interpreting photos they see in the newspaper, or overhearing bits of news reports that I turn on when I think they are not listening.
Because we can’t protect our children from all news they may find scary, especially when it involves a national or international event, it’s important to know how to help children deal with these events when they occur.
When there are headlines that may upset children, Kyle D. Pruett, M.D, member of The Goddard School Educational Advisory Board, and clinical professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine recommends that you:
1. Limit screen time to non-news coverage programming for your young children. TV, smart phones and tablets all have ability to easily deliver graphic, startling images and photos of distressed adults and children that will bring the trauma very close to your child, no matter how far away you may live from the incident. Some stations even go as far as broadcasting interviews with frightened children, which will make the incident even scarier for your child. Also, the younger the child, the more likely he is to see each broadcast as a new attack – just as children saw the broadcast of September 11th plane crashes as ‘hundreds of planes crashing again and again’ your child may see images of the earthquake in Nepal as dozens of earthquakes.
2. Help your child understand your emotions and their own. Children are very sensitive to their parents’ emotions even in good times. In worrisome events, they are especially sensitive. If your child asks you if you are upset or worried, be honest, but brief, and then reassure your child that you will be fine and so will they. It is important for children to understand feelings and talking about them helps.
3. Let your child’s questions guide the conversation. When your child hears about an upsetting incident he will likely want to know more and is likely to ask for details such as: Who died? Did it hurt? Will that happen to me? Why would somebody do that? Where were the police? Were they bad people? Where were the parents? Are we at war? Before trying to answer your child’s question, make sure you heard it correctly by asking the child the question back, with a ‘What do you think?’ tacked on the end. By listening to their answer you will get a better idea of what they are truly asking about and you can address their specific concern. Remember that less is more so if a child says he thinks we are at war because he saw National Guardsmen on TV you can reassure him that the soldiers he saw are there to keep people safe and that no one is going to attack his home. Always keep your answers simple and to the level of your child’s developmental understanding.
4. Reassure children. When there is a scary event in the news children may be concerned about an aspect of their own or their family’s personal safety. Your child’s reaction to the news they hear and the questions they ask will give you an idea about their specific concerns. You can offer reassurance, such as: “We are all fine as always. This happened far way away (if true).” Or, “The police came when the grown-ups called so no one else got hurt.” Or, “The kids hurt in the tornedo were all taken to the hospital and the doctors are taking care of them.” If you do not know the answer to a question, such as “Why would someone shoot people at church?” you can answer truthfully by saying “We don’t know why someone would do that, but it has never happened there before and probably never will again.”
5. Create a strong community. In any time of unrest or crisis, gathering friends and family provides much needed support for grown-ups and children alike. Having more people around also means that you will have more resources to share with your children.
6. Stick to routines. The unpredictable is scary for children and a predictable routine is especially reassuring when children are frightened or unsure. Being rigorous about your routines and rituals will help children feel more secure.
Jamie Davis Smith is a mother of four and freelance writer in D.C.
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