Tragic news stories like shootings in schools or public areas, kidnappings and war-violence can be quite scary for children. It can be extremely shocking when a child is suddenly faced with images of hurt people or the thought that there are meanies out there who do terrible things.
Parents can help teach children about the state of the world or what's happening nearby without causing undo stress on their systems. How children receive information about violent events can greatly affect their body's ability to process this information.
How To Help You AND Your Child Through Sad and Scary Times
The important things to remember for parents, teachers, and coaches regarding delivering information that might spark fear is to reduce the visuals, increase listening, and use words that are not emotionally charged.
Here are four suggestions to help your children learn about scary events without causing them undo stress:
Turn the TV and radio off when children are around. Child brains and vocabulary just can't handle this type of information - they don't understand enough about cause and effect. Most children feel the event they hear about through the media is directly happening to them. They also don't understand repeated footage so if a video of a violent event is being repeatedly shown on a screen, children believe the event is happening over and over again.
If there is a news story you would like more information about, you can go online to get the information, but please be aware that you, too, might be disturbed by some of the images you see.
If it happens that your younger child hears about a violent news story, be truthful but not scary. Do not lie. Try something like, "Something very tragic happened today and people are upset and scared because some people have died."
For teenagers, I would still turn the news off to avoid the burning of images in their mind, but gently introduce the news story as neutrally as you can. I know this will be tough, but try to keep them from getting caught up in speculation, judgment, or name-calling.
Provide information about the event with neutral language as I mentioned above, and then ask if your child has questions. Let your child lead you through what they need to hear.
Parents likely don't know what children have heard at school or around others so providing the child with an opportunity to explain what they have heard and asking questions they have is a great way to facilitate understanding.
Your children are continually watching how you handle things. If you grab the phone, sobbing, and exclaim, "What a monster!! How could someone do something like this?" (which might be what we are thinking), everyone around you will get worked up. Use all your tricks to calm yourself down, talking as little as possible about this event to others in front of children.
Events and images, particularly ones involving harm to children, are upsetting for most parents so it is okay that we feel sad, even cry, but try to not allow yourself to get into a frenzy.
For those children who do end up finding out about big violent news events, their parents need to be the voice of reason and security. Remind your children that they live in a safe country, and about all the things that are in place to help them be safe. Although these events get a lot of press time, they are actually quite rare.
This is a good time to discuss your family's emergency plan: what would you all do if communication or power was out? Where would you meet? Who else (nearby) can your children count on to help them when a crisis is happening?
Children often become clingier when they experience something stressful. Please give them as many hugs as they—and you—need to feel better. It is called "healing touch" for a reason.
* If your child has heard or seen more than he or she can process, and is having nightmares or has become overly anxious, it is important to seek professional help as soon as possible. Most psychotherapy or counselling organizations have lists of people in your area.
For more info on helping your child understand and cope with violence and death, please check out these resources:
And finally, here is some wonderful and truly helpful advice from Mr. Rogers: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world."
If you have a question about a specific event that is happening, I invite you to visit my Facebook page where I post up-to-date parenting information.