Helping Children Deal with Tragedy in the News

Preschoolers and young school-aged children easily can be frightened by images of disasters.  They live in a world somewhere between reality and fantasy, and often have difficulty distinguishing between the two. They also have not yet developed their full understanding of mortality, or whether something on television is far away or close by.  Here are some guidelines for handling children’s exposure to devastating events in the news.   

Limit Their Exposure.  This is a good time to fall back on effectively managing their access to the television by limiting the amount of time they watch it.  If you have to watch it yourself, get your children involved in another activity at that time.  There are numerous university studies that confirm the high amount of violence on television and the effects on children.  Some of these effects include desensitization to the pain and suffering of others, more fearfulness in general, and increased aggressiveness toward others.   

Explain It to Them.  If they do see the news report or hear about it from other sources, explain it to them clearly and honestly, and at their own development level so they will understand.  Be ready to answer all their questions and encourage your children to verbalize their worries and concerns.  Look for positive stories in the wake of the disaster.  Most networks emphasize the gloom and doom of the event, but "human interest" stories often follow, emphasizing the best sides of human nature. Accounts of heroism, rescues of people or animals, and humanitarian efforts to help with food and other supplies tend to follow the initial disaster-oriented coverage. 

Watch for Unusual Behavior Changes.  If you sense that children know about a disaster but are not talking, the best thing to do is to create safe and loving opportunities for them to express their feelings.  You’ll have better results by asking them open-ended questions for responses in their own words.  Remain calm and don’t force them to talk about it.  If an unusual behavior occurs such as bedwetting, hitting or sudden meltdowns, be patient and don’t get upset.  Feel free to talk with your pediatrician if necessary.   

Manage Your Own Emotions.  Even if you’re doing a great job limiting the television, your
children can still sense something’s wrong if you are worried or your moods are being affected by the events taking place.  You may need to talk with someone to ease your own fears about the disaster.  If you’re feeling sad and need to cry, take care of yourself by finding ways to get some solitude.  Don’t hesitate to lean on family and friends or seek professional counseling if necessary.  It’s one thing for a child to see something scary happening, but when their “all-powerful” parent is showing signs of distress, it can disturb them even more.   

Fall Back on Your Religious Faith.  Take comfort through regular prayer in your family meetings or attend special church services.  You can bring attention to the victims of the tragedy and those who suffered by lighting candles to honor those who died in the disaster.  If your children are old enough or you’ve taught them to handle candles safely, put a large candle in the center of the table to represent God or whatever life’s greater power is for you.  Each family member then takes a smaller unlit candle with a drip protector on it and dips it into the larger candle to be lit.  Candles with the special drip protectors are usually called “candlelight service” candles and are widely available.  This exercise also teaches unconditional love and will help children feel safe.  By blowing out the flame of their candle to represent being frightened or not feeling good, re-lighting it repeatedly from another lit candle shows them that love is never-ending.  They will also see that they can get that love from God’s candle in the center of the table, from mom or dad’s candle, or from each other. 

Create or Revisit Your Family Evacuation Plan.  Setting aside time to do this and including the children in the development process will help them feel safe.  Children automatically see their parents as magical giants who have all the answers and know what to do.  Putting evacuation plans in place in the event of an emergency will demonstrate this power you have and will set their minds and hearts at ease. 

Get Your Family Involved With an Organization That Serves Others.  Take part in community action to provide services and supplies to the victims of the disaster.  You may find many local groups such as the American Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity International that seek volunteers for packaging and collecting supplies.  Many of these efforts may allow children to participate.  When your children see you giving to help others, it models the spirit of giving in their own way. It helps build the moral foundation you’ll want them to have as they grow.    Your children are small creatures exploring and learning their world one step at a time.  When something devastating happens in the world, they will undoubtedly have great difficulty in understanding the causes and impact.  Be ready to comfort them and love them even more than usual.  Be patient and be ready.  You as their parent are the most important teacher they will ever have!   

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