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It's healthy to talk to kids about tragedy

by Deidre Ashley

October 18, 2017 | from Sound Mind | The Jackson Hole News & Guide

With all that is going on in the world today, it gets more and more difficult to deal with current events.

There seems to be a constant stream of coverage of horrific events from mass shootings to natural disasters. With how difficult this is for adults, it is even more difficult for children. Today’s technology and social media sensationalizes the news, making it extremely accessible and impossible to shield our kids from being affected by such events.

Upsetting news can cause children to feel anxious or frightened long after the actual event. Here are some things parents can do to help kids deal with all this information.

The first thing to do is check your own reactions and feelings. Your kids will be watching you and looking to your example of how to handle the information. Model a calm and rational approach. Don’t forget to take care of yourself first. Take a break, turn off the news, take a walk or engage in some other physical activity while doing something that may lighten the moment. Talking about the issues with your kids is important, and being grounded will help the process.

Consider the age and maturity level of the child. Elementary and middle school children will have more difficulties with regulating thoughts and emotions, especially if they tend to be more sensitive. Teenagers will be better equipped to handle the news but still need some guidance from you, especially with separating facts from opinion or misinformation.

Avoid minimizing your child’s anxiety or fears. Try to reassure young children that you and they are safe. Explain protective measures that are in place to keep them safe. This can help mitigate some of the fear. With some events, encouraging your kids to take action by putting together care packages or sending aid to humanitarian efforts can also help. This will give them something to do as well as a productive outlet for the news.

Limit access to the news. Turn off the radio or TV and limit social media time. Repetitive images and sensationalism can increase the fear. Spend some quality time together instead, having discussions and answering questions to ease fear or worry. It is also OK to show that you are human and may not know why something happened, or that you are feeling sad as well. Distraction activities may be useful for very young children such as watching a funny movie together.

For children that are a bit older, this may provide a good time to be available for questions and conversation. At this age kids are still developing their moral beliefs and may see events as black and white. You may have to explain prejudice, bias, and civil and religious conflict. Ask them what they already know or have heard, and correct any misinformation. Monitor where they are getting information, especially if it involves the internet.

For teenagers this provides an opportunity to check in with them. Most likely they will already have seen the news or event. Talking with them can offer great insights into their developing morality and thoughts about social justice and politics. It will also help you get a sense of what they are feeling and what information they already have. This is also a good time to let them know your own thoughts and feelings about some of the important issues.

It is important to present this in a way that is not dismissive of their own developing thoughts or feelings. Let them express how they are feeling. At this age many teens feel passionate about issues and may wish to get involved in activities that reflect their views. This may help then see they are able to make a difference in the world we live in.

Keep an eye on how children are dealing with tragic events and check in with them regularly. Feeling confident in talking with you about questions will aid them in processing emotions rather than internalizing fears. If your child continues to have excessive worry, talk with a professional or other parents for ideas that can help.

Deidre Ashley is executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center. She is a licensed clinical social worker and has a master’s degree in social work.