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Bad News

Many households have the television tuned to the evening news on a regular basis. Adults like to catch up on local and world events as the day comes to a close. But what about the kids? Exposure to news events can be overwhelming to children.

Stories about war, famine, natural disasters and violent crime fill the news. It’s on TV, on the Web, in the newspaper, on the radio, sent as alerts and notifications to smart phones, and emailed. It’s no wonder with all the ways the 24-hour news cycle inundates our lives that even young children become aware of news events. It’s upsetting and disturbing to many children. And when the news includes things like February’s school shootings in Ohio, or the July movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., it can be traumatic.

Keep the following guidelines in mind when deciding how to manage your children’s exposure to the news.

Limit their exposure. As mentioned, it’s almost impossible to escape major news events. As news breaks, the same images are shown over and over. Young children can misinterpret this as multiple, separate events. Experiencing the sights and sounds of the news clip numerous times is overwhelming. Consider recording the news and watching it after kids are in bed. Be aware of newspaper headlines and pictures. Reserve adult discussions about violent events for times when children are not present.

Managing children’s exposure to events in the media is difficult. If they are old enough to access the Internet independently, you can assume they are seeing some news bulletins on the way to their desired website. Your computer’s Internet homepage likely cycles the latest major news events. Don’t assume they don’t know about it just because they aren’t mentioning it to you.

Discuss what happened. Despite your efforts, it’s likely at some point even younger children will hear about a violent news event. If you suspect they already know something, calmly talk to them about what happened. Parents can start the conversation with something like, “I noticed you saw part of the news story on the earthquake. What do you think?” Make sure your tone and behavior are soothing and reassuring. Yes, this event happened in the world, but your family is OK and they are safe. Find out if your child has any questions or ideas about the news event. What he or she is hearing on the school bus may not be accurate.

Respect their feelings. It’s important to accept what children are feeling. You can even agree with a comment by saying something like, “Yeah, it makes me sad, too.” Don’t try to talk them out of their feelings by saying why they don’t need to feel sad, scared or angry. Calmly reassure them of their safety and acknowledge they may still feel the way they feel.

Give them ways to help. Feeling helpless in the face of a tragedy can be anxiety-provoking and cause sad feelings to linger. If your child seems to be struggling to cope, talk about things he can do for the victims of the event, local charities or people in your own neighborhood. Sending a care package for children affected by the event, giving a donation, or offering to walk an elderly neighbor’s dog are all caring actions that can be empowering for children.

Deciding how to deal with scary news events with your children is an ever-evolving process. Shielding them from some events may be easy—while with other events it’s impossible. Some children are very tuned in to any tidbit of news while other kids seem blissfully unaware. Parents have to take into consideration a child’s age, personality and emotional coping skills. As children get older, being informed about world events in age-appropriate doses is a good thing. Parents can rely on their best judgment and these tips when scary news events happen.  p

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.

Photo above: © Dmitriy Shironosov | Dreamstime.com

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