Talking About the News with Children
One of the toughest and most challenging skills we work toward as parents is managing our own feelings of grief, loss, and anger in the presence of the innocent and hyper-absorbent hearts and minds of children. This becomes even more difficult when current events are deeply, deeply disturbing. Here is some basic information that we hope will support you and your families in those times when we must process and present the world in a way that protects the sensitive and developing spirits of young children. The following is a clear and concise set of guidelines (sourced from the folks at PBS).
What They Understand about the News.
Preschoolers often mix up fact with fantasy. If they see a war on TV and you tell them it’s very far away, they generally don’t understand what “far away” means. It could be as far as the mailbox on the corner, the post office a few blocks away, or Grandma’s house in the next town! And when they see disturbing events on TV, they may even think they’re happening right there in the house.
Young children take words very literally, which may present problems since the news is filled with nuances. “After the Columbine shooting, one child in my class thought his mother’s garden, which was filled with columbine flowers, was dangerous. Another, hearing news of a heart attack, was afraid something would attack his heart,” recalls teacher Jane Katch, M.S.T.
Signs of Stress
While preschoolers may not comprehend exactly what happens on the news, if it is disturbing news they can still be acutely aware that something is wrong and feel their parents’ anxiety.
If they are exposed to violence on the news, some preschoolers may become more anxious, have nightmares, change their eating habits or fear being away from their parents. Others may show no signs of stress at all but still be affected. “Don’t wait for concrete signals. Assume situations like these are stressful for preschoolers,” says Susanna Neumann, Ph.D.
Preschoolers generally view TV as a magic window into the world and have trouble separating television images from their daily lives. Like babies and toddlers, preschoolers will focus on sights and sounds such as bombs, guns and loud noises.
Shield preschoolers from news coverage of violent events whenever possible. Young children often think what they see on TV is happening in the here and now. Turn off your TVs and radios when young children are in the room. (You might offer favorite music instead.) If young children do see violence on the news, remind them it is only a picture on the TV. You might say, “This happened many, many miles away. You are safe.”
Avoid repeated viewings of the same event. Your child may think it’s happening again. “After 9/11, children who saw multiple news reports often thought more buildings were falling down, again and again,” reports Diane Levin, Ph.D.
It’s not necessary to discuss violent events on the news, unless you know your preschooler has been exposed to them. If you’re aware of this or observe changes in her behavior, you probably should discuss the news event in age-appropriate ways. Changes to look for might include increased interest in war-related play — pretending blocks are missiles, for instance — or behavior that is out of character with your child, such as increased difficulty with separation or trouble going to sleep.
However, it is useful to discuss news that is connected to your preschooler’s life. “The news is a way of learning about the world, so early discussion about your young child’s experiences in the world sets the stage for more in-depth discussions as your child gets older,” says Diane Levin, Ph.D. “These discussions can come out of day-to-day activities you do together. “Talk about the weather outside and then watch the weather report or listen to it, talk about an election when you take your child to the polls, and talk about recycling as you put the cans out together.”
If your child has a question, ask what she knows in an open-ended way. You might ask, “What do you know about that?” and then answer your child’s question in an age-appropriate way. “Finding out what your child understands about what she has seen or heard will help guide your response. It’s not just the fears you want to deal with, you may want to clear up confusions and misconceptions that may be scaring your children. You don’t need to over-explain in ways that are not age-appropriate but you do want to clear up the confusion,” advises Diane Levin, Ph.D.
Explain that you are safe.
When children hear or see a scary event on the news, they often relate it to themselves and may feel directly threatened. Reassuring your child that he is safe and that this news is not happening here should help him feel secure. Reviewing and maintaining routines can be comforting as well. For example, you might explain what time you will be home, who will pick your child up from school and what your plans are for the weekend.
Provide art materials, blocks, dolls, and stuffed animals.
Playing with these objects will help your child explore what she feels. In a response to a specific news story, offer related props for the play. (Provide toy cars if your child talks about the police cars on the news or in the neighborhood, for example.)
Snuggle and cuddle.
As you would with an even younger child, offer lots of cuddling and hugs, and be patient and sensitive to changes in patterns of eating, sleeping and toileting.
Find out what your child has to say about the news. There is no “right way” of thinking about a topic and your young child will interpret it differently than you. So listen to what he says and base what you say on his interpretation, not your own.”One of the most important things for healthy development is for children to feel safe and secure. Violent images in the news can scare children even if they are far away, and undermine their sense of well-being. Therefore it’s important to protect young children as much as possible from these images and keep TV news off.
Keep it Simple and Concrete
If young children are exposed, remind them that they are safe at home and provide concrete examples using age-appropriate terms that will be understood.
“You might explain that a hurricane is thousands of miles away and show that on a map. You could show how you lock the doors to stay safe from burglars. You could remind her that you wear a seatbelt to keep her safe in the car. Tangible discussions will help your child calm down and feel secure.”
Diane Levin, Ph.D.
Professor of Education, Wheelock College. Co-Author, The War Play Dilemma.