Paula K. Rauch, MD, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and her colleagues at MassGeneral Hospital for Children offer guidance about talking with children about upsetting events.
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. News about natural disasters and other tragedies 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 times 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:
School Age Children:
All of these reactions are normal. It is important to keep talking to your children and allow them to express all of their feelings.
Written by Paula K. Rauch, MD, and colleagues at MassGeneral Hospital for Children