With the widespread access to world, national, and local news through a variety of media sources, children can easily be exposed to distressing and traumatic events in the news. As a parent, it can be helpful to process what a child’s exposure to certain news events has been, how the child feels about the events, and any resulting safety concerns.
- Use age appropriate communication. News outlets are often geared toward adult language and communication styles. As a result, children will usually need information translated into an easier to understand form. In addition, young children will need to have things explained differently than middle age children or teens. Consequently, as parents have conversations with their children, it is important to keep age and understanding capability in mind.
- Limit news exposure. Some traumatic events in the news can be hard for adults to process the viewing of jarring images and hearing in depth details of trauma that has been publicized; the same is true for children. Young children especially do not yet fully understand complex situations. Since young children are still developing their sense of autonomy, viewing graphic or disturbing images in the news can cause young children to respond to certain news events as if they are directly happening to themselves. As a result, it is important to limit exposure to distressing and traumatic news for children, especially videos and images. If children still hear adults or other children talking about news, it is helpful to follow-up after those overheard conversations to explain in an age appropriate manner.
- Ask your children about their exposure to news events or what they “think” has happened. One of the best ways to find out what your child knows about the news is simply to ask your child questions like, what did you hear/watch/read about what has happened? Then ask follow-up questions and clarify where applicable. It can also be insightful to ask children what they think has happened in regard to a certain event. A child’s interpretation of the events may be more of what triggers certain emotions than the actual event.
- Ask your children how they feel and look for behavioral cues that reveal emotions. Asking your child about feelings can be a great way to start a conversation about how news events have impacted the child. It is also important to remember that children’s brains are not wired to be good at verbal communication of emotions. It is much more likely to observe children expressing aggression in their play or reluctance to participate in once enjoyed activities than for the children to verbally communicate all their feelings about stressful and emotional topics.
- Establish a sense of security and develop a safety plan. One of the most common responses for a child after exposure to distressing news is to question one’s safety. Even if it may seem to an adult that the news event does not directly impact the child’s immediate safety, to the child it could open up questions like, who will take care of me if something happens to my parent or how do I stay safe if (fill in the blank) happens? If the news event occurred directly in your community or impacts your family’s immediate well-being, it can be critical to create and follow a family safety plan. For those a little more removed from the actual event, it may also be helpful for families to establish a safety plan for “what if this happens in the future” to help reduce a child’s fear or anxiety and establish a sense of control over the child’s circumstances.
- Maintain a feeling of normalcy and communicate any changes to routine. After exposure to traumatic events, staying grounded in the familiar can be helpful for children to feel secure. Reading comforting books, giving extra hugs, cooking a favorite meal, and spending quality time with children can help as they attempt to better understand what is happening in the world around them. In certain situations, changes to the routine may be required, especially if applicable to immediate safety. In these scenarios, communicate to children as much as possible as to when the routine will be changed and answer any related safety concerns.
- Consider your own response to events as a parent. It is important for parents to take time to process their own reactions and emotions about news events. Children not only have their own responses and feelings to events, but they also absorb their parent’s and other caregiver’s reactions and often take them on as their own. As a result, if parents can bring a sense of calm and compassion to the situation, their children will directly benefit. In addition, children often take on the language style and perspectives of their parents. Consequently, if the parents model respect and compassion towards people in regard to the traumatic news events, then their children will be more likely to also respond in a similar manner.
- Keep the lines of communication open. As always, being available to talk with your children about life events is critical for their ability to feel safe and understood as they navigate difficult experiences and emotions. Having a regular family meeting can be helpful for many people to consistently have a time where children can bring questions and concerns to their parents to discuss further. Additionally, remember that children communicate and process life best through play. As a result, creating extra space for emotional expression through play for children during stressful times yields many benefits. Finally, continue to bring your questions and concerns to Heart to Heart so we can support you and your family as you navigate exposure to distressing and traumatic events in the news.
~Tasha Lehner MA