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Talking with Children About Upsetting News Events

News of the Haiti earthquake and related photographs have been so disturbing, that I skip headlines and scroll down to more mundane news.

If we adults can be so disturbed, what about children who are exposed to the same repeating news casts? Fortunately for us, Dr Paula Rauch, a child psychiatrist who heads the “Parenting At a Challenging Time” program at the Massachusetts General Hospital, (Boston, MA) gives us several tips on the best ways to engage with children of different age-groups.

Dr Rauch kindly gave permission to share this entire article with you all. Please share this valuable resource with other parents.


Talking with Children about Upsetting News Events

All children are exposed to news via newspapers, radio, the Internet, and especially television. And they naturally turn to their parents with questions about what they have seen and heard. For a child whose family is impacted by the earthquake in Haiti, news about the tragedy can raise concerns about their own family’s safety. Discussing these issues poses a special challenge for parents to listen, understand, and answer their children’s questions in a manner that is both honest and reassuring. Meeting this challenge successfully strengthens your child’s inner strength, sense of security, and trust in you.

First, you know your child best. You have likely been through good time and stressful times before. How your child has reacted in the past is often a good predictor for how he or she will cope with new challenges. Think about what has been helpful for your child previously, and use these successful strategies from the past. Most children will benefit from maintaining regular routines, including daily schedules and normal expectations for schoolwork. Children will take their emotional cues from the adults in their world. If we are calm usually they will feel secure; however, it is important to talk to your child about his or her specific concerns.

Second, check in with your child. Find out what he or she has been hearing, seeing and thinking about a new event or whether it has not yet come to his or her attention. Questions such as, “Are kids at school talking about __________?” or, ” What have you heard about __________?” are good ways to open such a conversation. If your child is younger and is not aware of the news, you may elect to go no further with this conversation. If your child has heard about the news event, encourage him or her to tell you about what they’ve heard or what they think about what others are saying. Ask if they have any specific worries. To answer questions and allay fears, it is important to really understand what your child is struggling with before you move to answer or reassure him.

Third, TV images can be upsetting. Turn off the TV around young children or those who may have been upset by TV news in the past. Be mindful that coverage of the same earthquake over and over again can be misinterpreted as something that is happening repeatedly. Watch television with older children so you can answer questions and be aware of their feelings. Some older children need to be reminded that the TV images can be overwhelming and that it’s OK not to watch. This is true for many adults, who may feel better listening to radio reports or reading newspaper coverage rather than watching disturbing TV images.

Fourth, make the most of family time. Spend extra time with your children. Turn off the telephone and the TV during meals so you can talk together. Often parents can identify times in the day or activities that facilitate thoughtful conversations. Sometimes, it is while driving in the car or when a child sits with a parent who is working in the kitchen. Those are great times to check in with your child and talk.

Finally, when a child feels the world in general is a little less safe, it is important to underscore the active things we do to increase our personal safety. These may include wearing seat belts or bike helmets, eating healthy foods and exercising, looking both ways before crossing the street and identifying who the supervising adults are in different settings so a child knows who to go to for help. When a child is feeling worried specifically about the safety of the parent or family overseas, support the child’s connection to the parent overseas by using whatever avenues of communication as they become available. Remaining confident yourself, and reminding your child of the security that comes from the preparation, training, skills, of our own community and its leadership can go a long way to re-establish a child’s sense of safety.

The following tips may be helpful at any challenging time:

Infants:

  • Infants pick up on the anxieties and actions of those around them, so remain calm when interacting with your infant. Keep routines and their environment consistent.
  • Infants may be fussy in reaction to anxieties around them.

Toddlers:

  • Keep routines consistent.
  • TV and radio news exposure should be limited and only in the presence of an adult. Offer videos to watch, read books and play with your child.
  • If a toddler asks questions about what is going on, answer in simple terms. Make sure your child knows that you are there to keep him or her safe.

Preschoolers:

  • TV and radio news exposure should be limited and only in the presence of an adult.
  • If your preschooler asks questions about what is going on, answer in simple terms. Make sure your child knows that you are there to keep him or her safe.
  • Spend extra time hugging and cuddling your child.
  • Play with your child. Connect with friends, or organize a playgroup.
  • Do some type of special activity together. Watch a movie, play a game, bake cookies.

School Age Children:

  • TV and radio news exposure should be in the presence of an adult.
  • Give children plenty of opportunities to talk about what they think is going on, and clear up misconceptions.
  • Encourage children to share their feelings and concerns with you. Let them know it’s all right to be afraid and that you will do everything you can to keep them safe.
  • Be available, as this age group may be more interested than younger children in the events but less capable then older children of coping and communicating.
  • Reassure kids that many people are keeping them safe and that your family is safe.
  • Offer special activities or games to them.

Adolescents:

  • Listen, listen, listen.
  • Watch TV news with them.
  • Engage your adolescent in healthy conversation. “What do you think about the events that are taking place in our world today?” “How did you feel when you first heard about this?”
  • Share your feelings with them honestly.
  • Encourage them to express feelings of anger, and brainstorm with them about how they can deal with those feelings.

All Children:

  • Be with your children as much as possible.
  • Ask — don’t assume you know — about their understanding of events reported in the news.
  • Validate feelings that your children shares with you as real, ensure they understand that there are no wrong feelings, and tell them that you have similar feelings.
  • When they ask about their safety, explain that you as a parent will do everything you can to keep them safe. Address their specific concerns.
  • If children have questions about the safety of their school, explain that parents, teachers and school officials are doing everything possible to keep them safe. Address their specific concerns.
  • Children may exhibit some of the following behaviors during stressful times:
    1. Regression – acting younger and seeking attention
    2. Becoming more clingy
    3. Having difficulty sleeping
    4. Being more temperamental, or making angry comments
    5. Talking about acts of violence
    6. Playing or acting more aggressively
  • All of these reactions are normal. It is important to keep talking to your children and allow them to express all of their feelings.

Credit: Paula K. Rauch, M.D. and colleagues from the MassGeneral Hospital for Children, Boston, MA. Dr. Rauch is a child psychiatrist heading the Marjorie E. Korff PACT (Parenting At a Challenging Time) Program. MGHPact.org

Comments

  1. Thanks very much Arun for the article. I appreciate it very much. 5 years ago. I attended a day long workshop conducted by T. Berry Brazleton (Children’s Hospital Boston) and one of the sessions talked about the same topic. I never thought about the topic until then and it got me thinking.

    At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I am going to let Asha know of my observation on katrina and NO. I think the american people were eager to help during katrina too. But it was the inept govt at that time which didn’t organize the relief efforts well.

    • Isn’t it amazing that there are people like Dr Rauch and Berry Brazleton who think through these issues and articulate them well for us all.
      And frankly, till I read this article, did not realize this as a issue. Now I am hyper aware.

      Best
      Arun

  2. excellent advice, arun. thank you!

  3. I saw a 15 day old baby girl injured on her head in the arms of Sanjay Gupta y’day on TV, I was so sad. Hope mom is alive and well of that child. I did donate to Red Cross ASAP, hope they use it for these kids. It’s a terrible tragedy.
    I must say I am amazed at the response of US towards Haiti in such generous way but what happened to all the compassion about the people of New Orleans when they needed it I wonder!! Even today, some are homeless there and still struggling to live a decent life. We were there before and after Katrina hit, I feel so sad looking at some parts of that beautiful city now.

    • Asah – the Haiti news is so horrible and gut-wrenching that I am unable to watch any of it. So have avoided it completely.
      And yes, new Orleans was one of my favorite cities and have been there about 5 times. Fabulous culture and great food.

      I have a good friend from NO and she says, things are slowly coming together. But certainly on the right path.

      That’s why I want the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl!
      🙂

      Thank you Asha.

  4. I myself am disturbed with the Haiti news and choose not to read news on that matter but news channel broadcasts the same news over and over again 😦
    That was a really helpful Arun. I just went through kindergardten syllabus and one of the question was how to explain death to a kid. I was not sure how will I be able to convince the kid.. It is very important to understand the child psychology while dealing with kids.

    • Thank you Ujwal.

      Children are so sensitive to the constant barrage from the media, it is important for us to be aware of if at all time.

      explaining death to a child? Hope those situations never arise.

      Best Wishes to you.
      Arun

Trackbacks

  1. […] few years ago, after the earthquake in Haiti, I had posted an article from one of our child psychologists on how to talk with children about such tragedies. Even more […]

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