Another tragedy has taken place, this time a terrorist attack in Paris, France. Children, adolescents and adults have lost their lives or been seriously injured while out for an evening of fun, errands or romance. Media outlets have been covering the events, sometimes showing graphic video or photos from the bloody scenes.
When children view these images or hear the stories, they can become scared and worried that the same thing will happen to them.
Whenever catastrophic local, national or global events take place, it’s easy to assume that your child doesn’t really know what is going on or understand the gravity. But, in this age of instant and abundant information, they most likely do. Children are very sensitive to their parents and friends’ feelings. They are more tuned in than you might think.
Children sense when their parents are really worried, whether they're watching the news or talking about it with others. No matter what children know about a crisis, it's especially disconcerting for them to realize that their parents are scared, angry or shocked.
When bad things happen, children want to know what is going on. It doesn’t have to be an international event. Local tragedies such as a flood, tornado, shooting, kidnapping, suicide, house fire or car wreck can be more frightening to children than events taking place across the world or in another state.
So, how do you talk with your child about such unhappy and threatening things? I’ve turned to Mr. Rogers to share with you his calming and thoughtful insights. The first time he addressed this topic was after Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Parents and educators turned to him for guidance then and his advice still holds true today.
In times of crisis, children want to know, "Who will take care of me?" They're dependent on adults for their survival and security. They're naturally self-centered. Their world is small and their life experience is limited. They need to hear very clearly that their parents are doing all they can to take care of them and to keep them safe. They also need to know that people in the government, in their community and in the world, and other people they don't even know, are working hard to keep them safe, too.
One of the ways young children express feelings is through play. However, sometimes events that happen are violent, so parents need to be nearby to redirect play if it takes a turn in that direction. More nurturing play can help children process the different activities and needs that happen around certain types of events. Play involving being a doctor or nurse in a hospital setting or creating a pretend meal for emergency workers or families can help children understand that there are good people and helpful actions that also take place when something bad happens.
When children are scared and anxious, they might become more dependent, clingy, and afraid to go to bed at night. Whining, aggressive behavior, or toilet accidents may be their way of asking for more comfort from the important adults in their lives. Little by little, as we adults around them become more confident, hopeful and secure, our children can experience a more calming sense of security.
When shocking event happens, it’s easy to get drawn into watching the news for hours and hours. Think back to 9-11 when there was non-stop coverage for days with repeated video of the towers being hit and falling. It created post-traumatic stress disorder, nation-wide. As hard as it is for adults to assimilate, it’s even harder for children. Once you have the information, turn the TV off or find something else for your kids to watch. Monitor their online activity as well to see if they are seeing too much graphic information or too many stories of “What if this happened here?”
Exposing ourselves to so many tragedies can make us feel hopeless, insecure, and even depressed, feelings that even young children can sense. We help our children-and ourselves-if we're able to limit our own television viewing. Our children need us to spend time with them-away from the frightening images on the screen.
Limiting our child’s media exposure doesn’t mean we don’t talk about what has happened with them.
Even if we wanted to, it would be impossible to give our children all the reasons for such things as war, terrorists, abuse, murders, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. If very young children ask questions, our best answer may be to ask them, "What do you think happened?" If the answer is, "I don't know," then the simplest reply might be something like, "I'm sad about the news, and I'm worried. But I love you, and I'll take care of you."
If we don't let children know it's okay to feel sad and scared, they may try to hide those feelings or think something is wrong with them whenever they do feel that way. They certainly don't need details of what's making us sad or scared, but if we can help them accept their own feelings as natural and normal, their feelings will be much more manageable for them.
Your child’s age and emotional IQ should be your guide on how much detail you go into when discussing tragic events. Very young children do not need a lot of detail. Children 7 and under are most concerned with safety. They need to know that you and they are secure. That’s why it important to keep the TV at a minimum for kids in this age group. They can identify strongly to pictures of other young children in peril or crying because they’ve lost someone dear to them. At this age, kids are most concerned with separation from you. Assure them that you are watching out for them and will protect them.
Children between the ages of 8 and 12 will often notice the morality of events. You may have to explain the basics of prejudice, bias, and civil and religious strife. But be careful about making generalizations, since kids will take you at your word. This is a good time to ask them what they know, since they'll probably have gotten their information from friends, and you may have to correct facts. This age group will most likely be online more. While it’s still important to keep news viewing under control, online viewing and searching should be monitored as well. It’s a good age to discuss lots of views and opinions about events. Read stories together and then ask them what they think.
Teens will probably get their news independently of you. Talking to them can offer great insights into their developing senses of justice and morality. It will also give you the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix, but don’t dismiss their opinions or insights just because they may not be the same as yours. They will shut down communication quickly if they feel their ideas are not being valued. Discuss the ways that different media covers events. Again, ask them what they think.
Having to discuss tragic or scary events with our children isn’t new. Generations of parents have had to address various topics from volcano eruptions that wiped out an entire city to the Holocaust to the cold war. But how we get our information has changed dramatically. Media in one form or another is prolific with gory images and misinformation available at the touch of finger. So parents have to react quicker and with more assurance and details than they would probably like. But that’s what we do. We protect our children in all ways, as best we can, with loving and clear information.
Carolyn Knorr, https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/explaining-the-news-to-our-kids