by Dr. Lindsay Asawa
If we could shelter our kids from the scary realities of the world, most of us would do it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, this generation children is exposed to violence almost daily. Whether it is through social media, violent video games, graphic news stories, scary movies, or word of mouth, children are likely to be exposed in some way. While they can become desensitized to violence in certain formats, children are often highly affected by tragedies in the media. They can experience feelings ranging from confusing and sadness to fear and anger. As parents, our goal is to address these feelings and restore a sense of safety and security. Here are a few ways to do that:
Start by having conversations to gauge what your children have heard from other sources. Be prepared to correct any misunderstandings and misinformation you hear. Children have a tendency to distort and embellish facts like a game of “Telephone.”
Follow your child’s lead and consider their age and developmental level. Use their statements and questions as a guide when deciding what information to share.
Avoid discussing gory details and unnecessary information. They don’t need to know everything and too much information can be a bad thing for children who are not developmentally ready to hear it.
Use simple, clear, and age-apporpriate language. Vague statements like “somebody did a bad thing” can be confusing and cause children to fill in the blanks with their imagination.
Monitor their exposure to media coverage very carefully and eliminate all exposure for young children. According to the Natural Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), children who spend more time watching media coverage of tragic events are more likely to develop negative reactions. Be aware that your children may be listening when adults are having discussions or when the television and radio are turned on in the background.
For teens, exposure to media coverage can be unavoidable. Take time to find out what they are seeing and hearing in order to have open conversations about the content. Discuss their thoughts and feelings, while also correcting misunderstandings. Be sure to provide a balance by limiting electronics time, encouraging other activities, and spending family time together.
Most importantly, convey the message to your children that their feelings are normal, they are safe, and there is reason to be hopeful. Discuss ways that their parents, teachers, and schools are working keep them safe. Point out efforts by individuals and organizations to prevent tragic events from occurring. When age appropriate, even provide opportunities for your children to play a role in bringing about change.
Despite our best efforts, some children and teens continue to struggle emotionally after being exposed to a tragic event. If your child is repeatedly having nightmares, difficulty sleeping, changes in behavior, difficulty separating from caregivers, refusal to go to school, or other significant changes in their functioning, it may be time to seek additional help and support. Schedule an appointment with your pediatrician, talk to the school counselor, or contact a licensed metal health professional. For more information about helping children cope with drama and tragic events, visit www.nctsn.org.
Lindsay Asawa, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Missouri City Family Counseling in Sienna Plantation. She provides consultation and evaluations for all ages, parenting workshops, and business and school presentations. Dr. Asawa can be reached at (832) 844-5576 or firstname.lastname@example.org.