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Nightly News: Talking with Children and Teens about Difficult Events

November 30, 2017

 

In even the most carefully prepared environments, children may hear and watch difficult news coverage, stories that their parents are processing at the same time, or current events that can leave them confused or scared. Our exposure to "bad news" is growing: while statistics show that crime overall in the US is lower than it has been in the past, news coverage of crimes has increased over 200%. Local news channels often lead with stories about violence, and can devote as much as 30% of their on-air time to the "bad news." The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes, "Chronic and persistent exposure to such violence can lead to fear, desensitization (numbing), and in some children an increase in aggressive and violent behaviors. Studies also show that media broadcasts do not always choose to show things that accurately reflect local or national trends."

 

So what can parents and teachers do to counteract the impact of our bad-news-driven media? As with all care choices, it depends on the age and development of your child. 

 

For infants and toddlers, avoid exposure to the news completely. While they may not understand the words, they will respond to the violent images and emotions portrayed on the news and they will absorb your stress as an adult if they are watching it in your arms. Turn off the news in the car and save your exposed to screen-based news for after your children have gone to bed or before they've woken in the morning. Toddlers can't always distinguish between what's happening on a screen and what's happening to them personally... turn off your screens when your youngest children are around, even if they're in the background while you're doing other things. If you find yourself adversely affected by the news, be sure to balance your anxiety with your child through more affectionate touch and warm contact. Your child will perceive your stress, and may need to be comforted through touch, hugs and affection to know that you are all still safe and protected. 

 

For early childhood children, continue to limit exposure to the news, but be aware that they may be alert to it nonetheless. Children in school settings may talk to each other or share details of events they've heard at home. Talking with your children about the news in safe and healthy ways is a useful way to connect them to their communities. You can share with your children details about local events, gauge the weather or talk with your children about elections and people in the news who are helping our communities. Remember, though, that children in your home may be more likely to access media independently and can be exposed to the "bad news" even when you're being diligent about your screen use. You don't have to introduce challenging news stories to your young children. If they have been exposed, be careful not to allow them to see the same images over and over on their screens.

 

Limit your own use of screens while you're with your children, both to prevent their exposure to unexpected stories and to protect them from witnessing your first-reactions to the same. If your child has been exposed to challenging news, be alert to changes in his or her behavior that may indicate uncertainty or stress, like more violent play, difficult sleeping or eating or an increased anxiety about separating from their family. Ask your child, “What questions do you have about what’s happened?” rather than presuming your child has been exposed to the same level of detail that you have. Answer their questions in child-appropriate ways, assuring them that your family is safe. Offer open-ended play opportunities, like blocks, dolls and art materials, that allow them to enact their concerns if they choose, but don’t insist on it on their behalf. Most importantly, offer more affection, more patience and more comfort, reassuring them that, even in challenging times, they are safe with their families. 

 

For older elementary children, remember that their interest is expanding from their own families and communities to the world at large, and their attention to issues of justice and fairness is acute. Children in upper elementary will want to know what’s happening in the world at large, and it becomes even more important, then, to expose them to that news in developmentally appropriate ways.  Continue to limit exposure, choosing when to listen to the news with your child rather than allowing them unfettered access to it. And do listen whenever possible, instead of watching. Audio news reports are less likely to be overwhelming or inciting, and you have no control over what images may appear next. That said, you should initiate conversation with your children at this age about what they have heard or are thinking about challenging topics. You can ask, “What have you heard about _____?” and wait for your child’s respond. If he or she has heard about an event, you can ask if they want to talk more about it. If they haven’t heard, you can simply say, “If you hear about it and you want to talk, let me know.” If your child is detailing events and has wrong information, correct it only if the way in which he or she has filled in the gaps would lead to more anxiousness. Children will necessarily construct the “rest of the story,” as they try to make sense of news they may not understand. Allow them to research it with you, reading with them and probing for their understanding or fear. Again, continue to nurture them more as they respond to challenging news. Older children need just as much physical affection and emotionally responsive care as younger children. Be patient with them as they make sense of the news. Look here for resources for news in a developmentally appropriate model for your children. 

 

For preteens and teens, watch and read the news with your child, debriefing about it as it happens. Still, limit the visual exposure in exchange for reading the paper together or listening to radio news sources. Choose sources that are more likely to offer extended details about an event rather than those which might merely repeat the eye-catching drama instead of the rest of the story. Avoid overexplaining, focusing on the parts of the story that would be relevant to your child, and allow your child to have his or her own opinions about the events, probing them to talk more about how they’ve come to certain conclusions rather than immediately correcting them. While your older child may not need as much physical comfort, he or she will take comfort in knowing that they have agency during challenging times. Ask them if they’d like to get involved to offer some comfort to others or to increase their civic engagement. Assure them that they are safe, but also allow them to take action to make things better. 

 

As our ever-intensifying news cycles continue to get louder, busier and more intrusive, it falls to us as parents and teachers to counteract the impact for our children. Model a calm thoughtful response to the news, measuring your own emotional reaction and thinking about the kids of questions your children may have. Be alert to changes in their behavior and take seriously the questions they ask you, even if they seem far-fetched. While we, as adults, may have decades of experience learning temper our reactions to bad news, children are learning about the world for the first time, and the events that draw our attention beyond our homes teach them about whether the world is a safe place in which they can thrive. You are both gatekeeper and translator to those events. While you may not be able to change them on a national scale, you can model in your own home how to make sense of them in a way that leaves your child with the motivation to get or stay involved in making them better. 

 

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