Gone are the days when most Americans got their news from 3 or 4 sources around the evening dinner hour. Today, thousands of news reports (some real, some fake) instantly flood our phones, computers, TVs and radios, sometimes with real time graphic images.
While some news events may be difficult for even adults to comprehend (with all our life experience and knowledge about current affairs), children don’t have that advantage when they hear and see things that feel threatening to their safety and family stability.
The Journal of American Medical Association, (JAMA) Pediatrics, has published a free online patient’s page dedicated to How to Talk to Your Children About Tragedies in the News.
The amount of information available on current events is almost instant. Sometimes parents don’t have a chance to screen what their children see and hear, so it’s important to know how to talk with your children about what they are experiencing.
The JAMA article is broken down into different age groups. Your approach should differ depending on your child’s age and ability to understand complicated situations.
A good place to start in discussing a tragic event is by asking what your child has already heard. After you listen carefully, you can ask what questions they have. It is important to be honest about what happened and to focus on the basics. It is not necessary to share every detail, and it is important to avoid speculating about what might happen next. Listen closely to your child for misinformation or underlying fears. Remind your child that you are there for him or her and will keep them safe. A key underlying message for parents to convey is, “It is ok if this bothers you; we are here to support each other.”
For very young children, news events can be frightening because they don’t understand context. Children may wonder; is this going to happen to us? Is this happening in our neighborhood? Are my friends ok? Are we next? News media coverage can include graphic images and sounds. It is best to share information with children by discussing it rather than showing the media coverage. Young children may have more questions about whether they are truly safe and may need help separating fantasy from reality. Some children may become clingy or regress in behavior such as wetting the bed or sucking their thumbs. It is important to be patient and to support your child if he or she reacts in this way. Do not ignore your child’s fears or brush them off. Realize that children see the world from a different perspective.
For older children and teenagers, it may be more difficult to avoid exposure to these events in the news. Kids on social media outlets often see stories and videos on their phones while at school or out with friends.- before you have a chance to preview the news. When there is a concerning news event and you have the opportunity, try to preview it before showing it to them so that you know what to expect and what key points to discuss. Then watch it together. Older children and teenagers may want more information about the tragedy and the recovery efforts. They may have opinions about the causes as well as suggestions to prevent future tragedies or a desire to help those in need. Listen to what they say and validate their concerns. If they’ve already seen something tragic, again, ask them what they think about it and talk about their concerns and what they see as a next step in coping.
Other ways you can help your child manage unsettling news are:
Like adults, some children may have difficulty with events for a variety of unexpected reasons. Think back to 9-11. How many of us were prepared to watch the towers collapse and the horror and anguish of the families that were missing relatives and friends in the buildings? How we feared that there was a possibility that our country was under attack. It was one of the most devastating events our country has ever experienced in the modern age of instant media information.
Time has helped us put that day in perspective, but the repeated showing of the planes flying into the towers gave many Americans PSTD symptoms. It was almost too much to comprehend. Remember that when your child is scared or anxious about a current event. Help them realize that tragedies do happen, but we can and most often, do survive.
Some signs that a child is not coping well include sleep problems, physical complaints such as feeling tired, having a headache or stomachache, or just feeling unwell. Changes in behavior may include regressive behavior such as acting more immature or being less patient, and mental health concerns like sadness or heightened depression or anxiety. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a child is reacting in a typical way to a tragic event or if there is something else going on.
Talk with your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned about your child’s reaction.
These are uncertain times. Everyone seems to be a bit on edge, wondering when the next shoe will drop. Have a plan on how to talk to your youngster about current events. Most of all have patience and be a good example of calmness and reassurance; that no matter what happens, you have their best interests at heart.