It seems that the world is stressed by current events and inevitably it’s trickling down into our home and family, whether we realize it or not. The news comes not only from the television, but also from the radio, from overheard conversations while we’re out and about, and from friends. These days, it seems like we can’t get away from it. So how do we deal with talking to our children about current events and making sure that they’re not badly affected?
Let’s start with the television. The imagery and sounds being broadcast during scary news stories are pretty hard to avoid. Natural disasters such as the recent hurricanes, world-wide conflicts, national politics and events, and overtly sexual talk is easier to witness than it’s ever been before, thanks to not only the television but also the growing use of computers and smart phones. As parents, you want to make sure that these scary and not always child-appropriate real-life events don’t end up traumatizing your child.
Exposing our children to daily events isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We just need to make sure that we’re aware of what they’re seeing and that they have a correct understanding of what is going on. For example, tapes from 9/11 were recently played throughout the day and night memorializing those who lost their lives and honoring first responders and rescuers. That could be a frightening event for our children to see, so talking about the videos, explaining why they’re being played, and assuring them that this tragedy isn’t happening in real-time, is important so they don’t think they are in imminent danger.
Another facet of news reporting is the replaying of sensational photos and other graphic video clips. Replaying emotionally tough events is hard on us adults, so imagine how hard it is for your children. They may not even recognize that they’re watching repeated clips. Best thing to do? Turn off the television if a traumatic event is being re-broadcast and limit your child’s exposure. Visual images can greatly affect our children, often even more than hearing the words used during the reporting, and it can be hard on us as adults as well! As another example, video and photos showing the devastation from Hurricane Florence often included destroyed homes, family rescues, evacuations, and collapsing roads. This is hard to take in, especially when small children and vulnerable animals are shown. Limiting these graphic images is important.
Sit with your children if you find them watching the news or they’re seeing news clip between their show breaks. Explain the basics of what is going on, answer any questions that they may have but don’t over-explain, and get out a map to offer some much-needed perspective to what they’re seeing. The flooding, the devastation, the soldier going to the hospital is not happening across town, but is occurring halfway across the country or on the other side of the world. Young children will need to have this pointed out to them so they can understand that they, their families, and their beloved pets are not in danger.
That said though, take their fears seriously. Don’t blow them off just because the event is happening hundreds or thousands of miles away. Encourage them to express aloud what they’re thinking, especially if you’re noting any change in their behavior. Ask open-ended questions about what they saw, about their concerns, about their fears, and in this way, you won’t run the risk of overwhelming them with more information than they can handle or from over-explaining, thus creating an even bigger emotional event.
For older children, you might want to help them to understand more about hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, or whatever natural disaster has happened. It may actually relieve their fears and concerns and with you by their side, there will be less of a chance that misunderstandings of the event occur.
Be there for your children. Whether it’s evident or not, they are looking to you for guidance and are watching you to gauge your response to what is going on. Be a calming influence. Keep calm, no matter what upsetting story is being reported or nightmarish image is flashing across the screen. Acknowledge your children’s feelings and fears, and reassure them that the family, their home, and their pets are safe.
During upsetting events, keep the family’s daily routine as normal as possible. This will be another visible way to help your children understand that life goes on even when bad events are happening. Be willing though, to add extra time for support and comfort during those times when it’s needed.
You’re heard of play therapy. There’s a reason that this is an effective tactic that is used with children who are stressed. Children often re-enact their fears, worries and experiences as a way of coping. Encourage play. It’s a way to release stress.
Watch how you talk about the event and see if you can’t emphasize anything positive that is going on, rather than just focusing on the negative. Instead of talking about “bad people” or imminent danger of a situation, cheer for the rescuers and organizations that are helping the people and animals who are in trouble or hurt. Another tact along those lines is to act as a family to be a part of the solution. In the event of a crisis or emergency, help to collect clothing, food, or money donations and personally deliver them to the organizations that are engaged in relief work, put in some time volunteering, or consider ways to help raise awareness. Doing something to help and getting involved in acts of charity not only help to reduce stress and fear caused by a crisis, but also sets healthy groundwork for volunteerism when they’re older.
Whatever the story is on the news, whatever the conversation overheard or series of disturbing images being shown on our household screens, be involved in helping your children to correctly understand what is happening. Help them to express their thoughts and fears about what they’re seeing and hearing, and take this opportunity to help your child engage with the community in a helpful and healthy way.