Years ago, we assumed that children who experienced disaster first-hand would be more traumatized than those who read about it or learned about it on the news.
But a new study of children’s brain and behavior indicate that is not the case.
Children very far away from a disaster can experience trauma and stress just from the news coverage of the event.
Due to the 24 hours news cycle and pervasiveness of graphic images and stories across TV, internet, and social media, disaster news has the potential to negatively impact our children’s mental health.
That’s why it’s important that parents take clear, actionable steps to help their children.
Limit media exposure. The most powerful tool in reducing the risk of trauma is limiting what your child is seeing. It may surprise you where content can show up. Ads during sporting events or live TV, YouTube, the news app on your phone when your child is using it – all are quick points of access for your child to see something that might be overwhelming and scary.
Co-watch media exposure. When you know your child is watching, looking at pictures, or reading about a disaster, make sure that you are present. This allows you to control messaging, ask follow-up questions, and help your child regulate any feelings. Co-watching media exposure also means that you can keep a close eye on your child. If your child is feeling overwhelmed or emotional, you can remove the media and unpack their feelings. If you can’t be present during media exposure, try to make sure another adult is present. If your child is consuming the media alone, set aside time to discuss it with them.
Monitor grown up conversations. Sure, you want to unpack the crazy disaster news with other adults in your life – but be careful. Even a child who seems distracted is listening to you. And even a young child is processing your tone, words, and topics. Pro-tip: Whispering often makes it worse. When children hear adults whispering, they know you are trying to exclude them. Instead, set aside time to discuss your own feelings and emotions about disaster news when your children are not within earshot.
Beat the playground talk. Even the youngest children hear about disaster news from children at the playground. Your job is talk about disaster news in a developmentally appropriate way with your child. You also need to repeat the conversation as new developments happen, allowing time and space for your child to ask questions. It can be very scary for children to learn about things from friends – your job is to help them be prepared for those conversations. (Learn more about how to have hard conversations with your child here.)
By creating a safe place for your child to learn about bad news, you are helping your child make sense of the scary events. Doing so will help protect your child from trauma and stress. It will also give your child a roadmap of how to deal with disaster news as they grow older, gradually teaching them how to regulate their own feelings and emotions.
I am an award-winning scientist, educator, author, and a mom. I help parents accomplish their goals for themselves and their families.
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