The news can be downright graphic and unbearable—even for adults. How can parents run interference?
Your kids will ask you about what on earth is happening when they watch TV reporting tragic news. It may be school shootings, terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, freak weather events, or immigrants fleeing war and destruction. These images are so upsetting that we begin to wonder if we should switch off.
I firmly believe that kids need to know what is happening in the world they are growing up in so that we can help them to be less fearful and prejudiced.
Switch it off?
I know lots of families who just will not have the TV news on. They rightly say that there is far too much fear mongering which is another form of terrorism, and I agree with them up to a certain point. The images are so upsetting that they feel perfectly justified in doing this. But there are risks here, too. Are we not over protecting them and wrapping them up in a fear-free zone?
I believe kids must know about the real world. They will be exposed to these events anyway on their devices and at school and will hear their playmates talking about them. They will hear other kids spout scary stories.
It is our job to prepare them to react to these in a sensible way. This is just as important as raising them in a safe, loving and caring environment. It is our duty to prepare them for the rather nasty and frightening realities that they will be closer to as they become more autonomous and adventurous.
Is the TV always on in your house?
Of course, a lot will depend on the age of the child and pre-school children should not be watching these scenes. There is also the fact that they are at an age when they do not realize that the same event is repeated ad nauseum. For them, that may represent multiple tragedies. No wonder they get frightened. The sad fact is that according to most surveys, about 75% of infants are watching TV before they even reach the age of two.
Just imagine breaking news when they are not being supervised. The images they will see will be scary to say the least. True, they may not even comprehend what is going on but they may well understand more than we like to think. With older kids, they will be curious and will start asking questions about why this is happening.
Here are 7 ways we can help kids cope. See which ones will suit your own kids/family.
You are the news reporter.
Ideally, you are the one who breaks the news rather than the TV. The great advantage here is that you can choose what to tell the child and also how many details you want to give. Again, this is age-dependent but it gives you a great chance to cut out all the unnecessary alarm, gory details and fear. You can be reassuring whereas news bulletins never are!
Tell them they are safe
It is important to tell them that these events are not the norm. They are tragic one offs when terrorists or mentally ill people resort to violence to achieve some goal which may or may not be political. Stress that there are adequate precautions taken when buildings, schools and transport systems are protected.
Stress that they are surrounded by law-abiding citizens
Ask them to look around and reflect on what happens when they play, go to school or travel. The majority of people are peaceful, law abiding citizens. It is very rare indeed that anything tragic or scary happens.
Reduce news exposure
When kids are upset and anxious, it is important not to overdo it by getting updates on what is happening. News broadcasters exaggerate with this and they create a really scary atmosphere. They talk about what happened again and again. This is why it is important to switch off now and start to do normal activities like homework.
Role of social media
With older kids who are super connected, there will be a rush to swap news on Facebook and other apps such as Instagram, especially if they know of friends or relatives who happen to live in the city affected. This is great at the beginning for getting some hard facts as news breaks. The problem is that later, you start getting all sorts of unverified bits and pieces. Encourage your kids to be sceptical so that they can double check facts. One of these sites is Urban Legends Online. The major newspapers usually tweet what is happening and following this can be harrowing.
Talk to kids about how they feel
Talking to kids is key. Whatever their age, they will want to talk about it and ask questions. They will say that they are anxious or even afraid. Yes, there are people in the world who are violent and use terror. But there are also people who preach hatred and prejudice. Also, stress that many mentally ill people never get treatment. Their actions are often a tragic way to get attention. Older kids and teens might want to talk about the moral justification in using drone attacks and the role of gun control in preventing school shootings.
Encourage kids to respond positively
Acknowledge that it is really scary at times. However, we must react and strive to make the world a better place. Talk about how people reach out and help each other after attacks. Tuesday’s Children’s Project Common Bond is an inspiring example. Last week, after the Brussels attacks, people offered accommodation to those who were stranded. Get your kids to donate clothes and toys for charities dealing with immigrants or ask them to do some fund raising.
Older kids will grasp the significance of being tough, starting over and striving to overcome labelling people who happen to belong to the same religion or race as the terrorists.
We all need to take that one on board. Empathy and tolerance will make us much stronger than fear and prejudice.
Photo: Gustavo Gomez