Terrifying, televised news images of fear and suffering scare children, and in the wake of 9/11 led to hundreds of cases of kids who developed post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing too many disturbing scenes on TV news broadcasts.
That PTSD epidemic created a conundrum for Joanne Cantor, who studies how media consumption affects human brains.
“For that kind of situation, it’s hard to know what to say to the very young kids,” she said. “Because little kids think it’s happening over and over again when they see it happening over and over again. And if you say something like ‘this hardly ever happens,’ they don’t understand that.”
Cantor, the director of the University of Wisconsin's Center for Communication Research, eventually wrote a children’s book aimed at helping kids cope with scary images on their home televisions.
“‘Teddy’s TV Troubles’ is a book about this little teddy bear that’s frightened by something he saw on TV,” Cantor said. “It never says what the bear saw on TV, because why should you bring up some new fear? But it’s for kids and parents to read together and go through.”
After the Boston Marathon bombing killed three people and maimed scores more, countless parents wondered whether and how to talk to their kids about the tragedy. No matter how hard parents might work to shield children from disturbing images, media coverage of the Boston bombing was so ubiquitous that virtually any media consumption by a child seemed to guarantee exposure to the bombing. Experts like Cantor and Harvard psychiatry professor Eugene Beresin have research-based, practical tips parents can employ to insulate their younger kids from and prepare older children to cope with news of real-life tragedies like the Boston bombing.
Picking up on parents’ cues
Even though they won’t grasp the scope of tragic events on the nightly news, very young children — especially those ages 5 and under — are still vulnerable to emotional distress vis-à-vis the signals their caregivers exude.
“(Young kids) don’t really understand world events, but they’ll know their parents are upset,” said Beresin, who is also the director of residency training for child psychiatry at two major Massachusetts hospitals. “They’re more concerned with actions than actual events — so if they know that you’re upset they may need to be held, there may need to be cuddling, they may need to sleep with you at night.”
Cantor emphasized the importance of providing personalized attention to young children during a time of crisis.
“If kids see their parents really upset, that’s one of the scariest things for kids,” she said. “They look to their parents, and if their parents are obsessing and really freaked out, that’s an indirect way that television affects kids. What you really need for young kids, if they are frightened by something like that, is to just do some calming things with them — pay attention to them, play with them. If they’re afraid, they don’t really need to discuss it as much as they need your calm, warm attention.”
For purposes of counseling parents on how to talk to their kids about something like the Boston bombing, Beresin divides children into two categories: “school-aged” (ages 6-13) and teenagers (14 and above). In both cases, he suggests opening any dialogue with a very broad line of questioning.
“In talking about the (Boston) bombings, we have to talk to kids at their developmental level,” he said. “With school-aged kids and with teenagers, don’t assume that they have the same kind of responses as you do. Always begin with open-ended questions so that you know what’s on their mind: ‘What are you worried about? What have you heard about? What’s in the news these days? What’s the buzzword? What are your friends talking about?’”
If school-aged children aren’t aware of the Boston bombings, there’s no inherent need to burden them with that kind of knowledge.
“For young kids, if they don’t see it or hear about it and isn’t affecting their life, it’s OK to let them go on with their lives without knowing about this because there’s no need to change their behavior,” Cantor said. “If they do hear about it, then you can tell them about it in a very low-key, age-appropriate way that doesn’t reflect your fears of what this means. My advice is, when you talk to them about it give them the calm, limited truth. You don’t have to go any farther than you think they need to know.”
However, teenagers are a different matter altogether. As they’re trying to make sense of the world around them, it’s necessary to imbue them with a certain amount of media literacy when it comes to how TV news portrays tragedies.
“Teenagers want to grapple with justice; they want to grapple with virtue,” Beresin said. “They don’t see as much of the black-and-white as the school-aged kids do, but they want to talk about things. With teenagers, I might watch a news broadcast with them and let them see some of the images and then process it with them: ‘What are you seeing here? What are you noticing? What are you worried about?’”
‘Look for the helpers’
If there’s a silver lining to helping children cope with tragic events like a terrorist attack, it’s that the spontaneous response to unprovoked violence can be used to teach a lesson about service and humanity.
“On NPR they quoted Mr. Rogers. He said, ‘Look for the helpers,’” Beresin recalled. “When bad things happen, there are many more good people in the world and there are a lot of helpers in the world. When people got hurt, a lot of people ran to help them and they got to the hospital so fast many lives were saved. Many people who were hurt got help from the doctors really quickly.
“And then you might ask the kids, ‘How would you like to help? Would you like to send a note to the people in Boston? Would you like to say a prayer for them, to light a candle for them? What do you want to do to help them?’ And then let the kids draw a picture; let them do something positive; let them become helpers, too.”
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.
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