Watching bad news with your child

Heather Rakestraw

Today’s news is loaded with tragedies.

From shootings to scandals and disasters, the news can be overwhelming, and a steady diet of this information can cause irritability and stress.

When the news is on with children present, they are likely absorbing the information, and they will be looking to the adults in their lives to model how to react.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when children are exposed to bad news:

r Limit exposure. Many news outlets run the same footage or story over and over again.

r Don’t leave the television or radio news running in the background unchecked. Get the story and then turn it off.

r Share your feelings. It’s ok to acknowledge what you both saw and heard and talk about how it made you feel.

r Be an emotional role model and provide reassurance. Your child is watching how you react and will follow your lead.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be sad or mad about the news, but you should also be ready to regroup and discuss. Remember that your actions and body language can speak as loudly as your words. Model resilience by continuing to live life in the face of tragedy: “We are still going to go out today,” or “We are still planning our trip,” and provide reassurance by saying, “We will do everything we can to keep you safe and watch out for you.”

Provide perspective. Have an ongoing conversation about how to consume news, pointing out that what is reported on the television, radio, and social media is often selected to trigger emotions and is a small part of the whole picture. Complete your comment with an accurate assessment that can also provide reassurance: “That happened pretty far from home. We are safe here.”

Offer to answer questions. Your presence and willingness to listen to and discuss your child’s concerns are more important than turning off the news. In your explanations, provide the level of detail that’s appropriate to the age of your child. You don’t need to give specifics, but you do need to be honest. Some questions are difficult to answer. If your child says, “Why did they do that?” It’s okay to say “I don’t know, but that’s just one person. There are lots more people who do good things” and cite positive examples.

Expend some energy. Break away from the programming and go for a walk, exercise or play a family game.

Empower your child to help. Plan or participate in an event that helps others, such as making disaster cleanup kits, serving food at a shelter, or raising funds for a charity. Do this regularly and remind your child that there are lots of helpers in the world, and he/she is one of them.

Watch for signs of stress and get help. When a traumatic event first happens, it is normal for a child to experience some signs of stress such as:

r Trouble sleeping.

r A change in appetite.

r Trouble paying attention or focusing.

r Not wanting to go out or participate in activities.

When the event is nearby or there are consecutive tragic events, the child’s reaction may be more severe. Children who normally have high anxiety may be more likely to experience post-traumatic stress after exposure to events in the news. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, or your child shows persistent signs of stress or agitation, contact your family doctor or a behavioral health professional for additional guidance and support.

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Heather Rakestraw, Ph.D., is a Child Psychologist with the Department of Behavioral Health, UPMC Susquehanna. For more information on behavioral health, visit UPMCSusquehanna.org.

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