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When terrifying stories such as the Boston Marathon bombings or school shootings hit the news, the amount and variety of information can be overwhelming for even the most discerning adults. Kids can have an even harder time working out what's true, what's not and whether or not they should be worried for their own safety.
Don't ignore current events in your home. Talk about what is going on in the world with your kids so they can feel informed and safe in the world they live in.
"Just like the conversation about sex ideally comes from calm and rational parents long before the opinions of peers and media are foisted upon them, informed and measured conversations about the news… including violence… should begin as early as a child begins to be exposed to attitudes and activities that will influence their sense of well-being and safety in their world," says Marion Goertz, a registered marriage and family therapist based in Toronto.
Make it a family affair
You may not be able to control everything that your child hears at school, but you can sit down and watch the news together.
"It's definitely a good idea to co-watch media with kids whenever possible, or at least be in the room when they're watching media you haven't previewed," says Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, a Canadian not-for-profit organization that works to teach children and youth critical-thinking skills for digital and media literacy.
If possible, sit down and watch the 6:00 p.m. news as a family, and then you can discuss any important issues over dinner. Your children will know that they always have an opportunity to ask questions about what they've seen. Don't force them to watch or discuss traumatic stories, though. If you know that they are uncomfortable with a particular topic or that they've seen enough, then "it's OK to just let them be kids," says Johnson. Don't force information on them.
Different stages have different needs
According to Goertz, children have different needs for safety, reassurance and understanding depending on their age and stage of development. She says that parents need to take "a non-anxious, non-theatrical stance" on news stories in order to properly address children's concerns. If you overreact to a story, your child may pick up on your unhealthy attitudes and opinions. Take cues from Peter Mansbridge and Lisa LaFlamme, and try to stay as calm and as level headed as you can.
"Especially with younger children, being in physical contact can be very reassuring," says Johnson, "as well as having you near to answer questions."
Being in close proximity to your children when they are consuming media also gives you the opportunity to monitor them and to make sure that they're not becoming anxious. If they are, you can change the channel, turn off the TV or direct them to a different website, for example, and you can talk about what's upsetting them.
In the aftermath following the Boston Marathon bombings, television news channels replayed the blasts incessantly. They analyzed every minute detail until they had new information to share. News websites were constantly updating their homepages and Twitter was a constant stream of tidbits and comments. This amount of information can cause fear in anyone and may be too much for kids to handle.
"With older kids, it may be the ‘wall-to-wall' coverage of events like these that is distressing," says Johnson. "Helping them to understand the commercial imperatives behind putting such an emphasis on these events can allow them to put it more in perspective. In those cases, it's also good to recommend taking a ‘media break' – and to model it by taking one yourself."
Have a healthy discussion
When you talk to your kids about current events, it's your job to make them feel safe.
According to the MediaSmarts tip sheet "Helping Kids Cope with Media Coverage of War and Traumatic Events" : "When traumatic events occur, kids need to have the risks to themselves and their families put into a realistic context. While we should be concerned about conflicts in other parts of the world, children need to be reassured that these events do not pose a direct threat to them."
Acknowledge that children may be treated terribly in other parts of the world, then talk about how organizations such as the United Nations and Free The Children are working to make the world a better place for those children. Research those organizations and their initiatives together.
If your child is afraid of something specific that he or she has seen in the news, MediaSmarts suggests rationalizing the fear. Perhaps someone was bitten by a snake. In that case, talk about how most snakes are not poisonous or the fact that that particular type of snake isn't found in your geographic area. If a natural disaster has your child upset, look up the type of storm and when one last hit your city (if ever). This can help put things into context and rationalize fears.
Express your own feelings, too. Tell your kids that you're sad for families who have lost loved ones in a fire, a shooting or a terrorist attack, and be open about how you're feeling. This is particularly helpful to older kids who will be able to relate – it's reassuring to know that adults feel the same way as they do.
When you're talking about the news, Goertz offers the following guidelines.
* Speak of impacts and outcomes. (Who is affected by these events? What will happen next?)
* Consider responsibility to others and self. (What about the bombers' families? The victims and emergency response teams? What about motives?)
* Express grief with authenticity. (Share your own feelings, but don't force them on your child.)
* Reassure your kids about their own safety and the importance of good choices.
For more information on how to talk to kids about the news and decipher media messages about traumatic events, check out the following MediaSmarts tip sheets.
1. Dealing with Fear and Media:
2. Helping Kids Cope with Media Coverage of War and Traumatic Events: http://mediasmarts.ca/tipsheet/helping-kids-cope-media-coverage-war-and-traumatic-events-tip-sheet