All the violence children see on the news is stressing out their parents. Whether it be a shooting or a natural disaster, parents want some insight into what to say to their children. Let me see if I can help.
The average child in this country will witness 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18. Do you suspect a violent story on the news is having an effect on your child? These effects can include behavior problems, nightmares or difficulty sleeping. You can help them share their thoughts with you about what they are seeing by sharing your feelings with them, but not to the point where your child feels even more unsafe.
Children old enough to understand what is happening are usually afraid that what they see might happen again. Sometimes they think that it could affect someone they know or love, or even lead to the feeling they might be separated from their family or left alone.
One way to reduce your child’s fear and anxiety is to discuss what you’re doing to keep the family safe. The same conversation can include what their school or the community is doing to keep people safe. Violence in a movie or fictional TV show is easier to explain. You can say that it is not real and there are other ways to handle conflict. Instead of violence, words or alternative non-violent actions can settle disagreements.
When violence is on the news, parents need to provide calm and truthful but limited information. This means providing enough truth to answer your child’s questions but not much more than that. Staying close by and giving them an extra hug to reassure them can help. So can building in more family time together. Keeping routines like chores and homework unchanged can also help maintain a sense of normalcy.
Ideally, watch what your children and teens watch, especially the news. This gives you an opportunity to comment on the context of current events. You can also listen, and answer their questions and reassure them as needed.
Finding ways for your child and you to help those affected by a tragic event can help. It often provides a better sense of control and makes children feel more secure. Despite these suggestions, your child might remain sad and withdrawn, and might not act normally in the weeks ahead. If that is the case, speak to your child’s clinician to see if your child may need counseling.
I hope tips like these will bring you peace when watching violent news or other content with your child.
Dr. Lewis First is chief of pediatrics at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D., College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.