With the nonstop nature of social media and 24-hour news coverage, how can you protect your young child from being overly exposed and affected by tragedy happening around the world?
Each time I get questions like this from parents, it saddens me so much that there’s a need to even ask. But at the same time, I’m glad they’re thinking about it. To me, these are the 5 key things we need to do to protect our children from emotional trauma and help them cope:
1. Provide the limited facts. (to kids ages 4+)
While you can (and should) shield children under age 4 from disturbing news, kids will likely hear peers comment on it when they start preschool or elementary school. By hearing the news from you first, your child will be less anxious when hearing friends talk about it. By ignoring and not talking about tragedy, children may think the subject is taboo. It may lead to them trying to hide their fears and believing exaggerated versions of what they hear. It’s up to you to ensure your child has the right perception.
Give your child simple, accurate information that isn’t too vague. Be careful to not over explain. Know that your child will likely interpret the situation differently than you. So ask him or her an open ended question like, “What do you know about that?” By doing this, you can gauge what your child has heard. It will help you determine how he or she views the situation, and find out what questions and concerns he or she has. Your child will take emotional cues from you, so stay calm and reassuring while talking.
2. Turn off the TV.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, 65 percent of children today live in homes where the television is on half the time; in 36 percent of homes, it’s on all the time. Social media and the internet is also part of daily life for many young kids. That means exposure to news events can happen via online pop-ups and sidebar ads – even if they are just playing a game. Be aware of what’s playing on your TV and computer screens. If violent news comes on, change the channel or switch websites.
Loud noises, big flashes and angry sounding or looking people will scare young children, who often mix up fact with fantasy. They often don’t know what “far away” means. And if they see replays of the same scary event happening over and over, they might think new events keep happening.
Get into the habit of regularly following news with children over age 4, so that they can learn about the world and their place in it. This will help them understand that there is good news in the world, not only tragedy. However, with school-age children it’s still important to limit violent images, so opt for newspaper and radio news over television.
3. Talk about feelings and opinions.
Share your feelings about the tragedy with your child. And help your child talk about his or her feelings with you. Young children can often share thoughts and feelings more easily through play. Provide crayons, markers, play dough, blocks, dolls, stuffed animals or other toys for your child to act out or show their reactions to the current news. Watch your child playing, and then discuss the content with them.
Be sure to listen to your child, and comfort him or her. Acknowledge his or her feelings, and let him or her know that it’s okay to feel sad, upset or stressed. Make sure your child knows he or she is not to blame when bad things happen. Some children may cope with a trauma or disaster better by helping others. Encourage your child to write caring letters to those who have been hurt or lost their homes; or thank you notes to police, rescuers or other people who helped.
4. Explain that your child is safe.
The most important thing is to reassure your child that he or she is safe, and to continue to provide a consistent and supportive environment. Getting back to your family’s normal routine sends the strongest message to kids that things are okay. Sometimes it takes some time for a child to process a tragic event. Tell your child that you love him or her. And give a reminder that he or she can talk to you at any time about worries. Snuggling or a firm, gentle hug can help calm children. For older children, this might mean explaining that the tragic event happened far away, what the police and airport security guards are doing to keep people safe, and safety precautions in your own home, such as deadbolts.
5. Keep an eye on behavior.
Tragedy affects children in different ways. Look for changes to your child’s behavior patterns, such as:
- Changes in eating or toileting
- Trouble falling asleep or nightmares
- Increased interest in war-related play
- More trouble with separation
- Complaints of stomachaches, headaches or fatigue
- Rowdiness, sobbing, angry outbursts or tantrums
- Acting younger than his or her age, like sucking on his or thumb or asking you to feed or dress him or her
- Loss of interest in schoolwork or withdrawing from friends and family
If you haven’t talked with your child about violence or tragedy that’s being covered in the news, these changes could be a sign that he or she has been exposed to it elsewhere. If you have talked about the coverage, keep reassuring your child that he or she is safe, and continue to encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings and opinions with you.
The good news is that children are usually quite resilient. While your child will likely not feel completely reassured overnight, that’s normal. However, if his or her changed behavior continues for more than 2 to 4 weeks, it may be time to seek professional help.
What to do if you think your child may need professional help
Start by bringing your child to the pediatrician or medical professional your family sees for well-child visits. Someone that already knows your child and his or her health history can often understand how anxiety affects your child and help calm his or her fears. That clinician can also help you determine if your child should see a child psychiatrist or behavioral health specialist. Our organization offers these mental health services at:
- Park Nicollet
- Stillwater Medical Group
- HealthPartners Central Minnesota Clinic
- Amery Hospital & Clinic
During the school year, it’s also important to reach out to your child’s teacher or someone at school who sees him or her on a regular basis. School staff may have additional thoughts on how your child’s behavior has been affected, and be able to provide resources such as school counselors.