The news reports can be scary and gloomy enough for adults. For kids it can be worse than a horror movie. Plus, in our digital age, it’s all-pervasive and virtually impossible to avoid. So if mums and dads can’t shield their kids from the terrors of the world 24-7, how can they help their kids process it?
The Sandy Creek school massacre in the US, is a case in point. It headlined television, radio and print news. You couldn’t turn on any form of media without hearing or reading about it. Many littlies would have even caught snippets of it as they travelled around in cars or eavesdropped on grown-up conversations.
But just how much should kids know? It’s definitely an ages and stages issue, says Rita Princi, psychologist and Australian Council of Children and Media (ACCM) spokesperson, because kids’ ability to process information develops over time.
On a need-to-know basis
But she’s adamant about one point: if a child, even as old as 12, doesn’t know about a horrific event – like the recent shooting – don’t tell them.
“They don’t need to know,” Rita says. “Will this information be of any benefit to them?”
The answer is no. All it does is make children feel unnecessarily anxious and unsafe.
Rita says that kids under the age of 12 see information as black-and-white and can find it hard to rationalise or understand that a shooting, murder or even natural disaster is a random and rare event that happened a long way away.
This view is echoed by Diane Levin, a US professor of education and author of The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent And Teacher Needs to Know.
“Children think about the news very differently from adults. News to kids is not just tragic events or disasters; instead they define it to include their entire lives,” she says.
“They also interpret the news in personal ways. For example, when young children watch or listen to news reports about crime, bombings, and cyclones, they may worry about their own safety. Because young children are not able to fully understand cause and effect and distance, it’s hard for them to make distinctions between an immediate threat and one that is far away.”
This is where parents need to step in and help make their kids feel safe, says Rita.
Backed by research
Watching news reports on catastrophic events, such as September 11, has been found to pose acute anxiety problems for children, because kids see that the adults are also scared. Plus these tragic events are often played over and over again.
“Children look to their parents for assurance that they’re safe – and they’re very astute at picking up on their parents’ anxiety,” Rita says.
Studies have also suggested that some children and teens can be prone to imitate what they see and hear in the news which can result in “copy cat” events, while chronic and persistent exposure to violence can lead to fear, desensitisation, and in some kids an increase in aggressive and violent behaviour.
Tips for parents: ages and stages
SA’s Parenting and Child Health website has this sensible advice for mums and dads on talking to your littlies about tragedies in the news.
- Turn the TV off so they aren’t exposed to what’s being reported in the media.
- Listen to their feelings calmly, give them time to talk without pressure.
- Explain that what has happened is in another country and a long way away (if this is true) and reassure them that they are still safe.
- Give lots of physical reassurance.
- Give lots of opportunities to play, draw and paint (without guiding them). This helps children to deal with feelings and get a sense of control.
- It is still a good idea to protect them from the TV. Visual images can have a powerful impact and news reports provide unnecessary detail.
- You may have to answer the same questions over and over as the child tries to make sense of what has happened. Give as much information as they want but avoid unnecessary or frightening detail.
- Give opportunities to talk about their feelings and their fears. Validate their feelings as real.
- Keeping to routine provides a sense of safety.
- Try to help them with their fears by talking through the issues according to their age and understanding, For example, “Sad and scary things do happen in the world but they are rare and there are lots of sensible people who are working to stop things like this happening”. Talk about the people who are helping.
- Most of all think about your own response. When things like this happen it touches our own sense of insecurity. It is really important to hold on to the sane and down to earth aspects of your daily life and this is what ultimately will make the world feel safe for your children.
This article was written by Fiona Baker for Kidspot NZ. Sources include Parenting and Child Health.
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