When frightening world events infiltrate our own experience, it can be tempting to shield little ones from the big bad world and pretend that nothing is happening.
However, if the situation is affecting your own emotional balance as a parent, it’s likely that they may sense that something is wrong anyway – that is, if they haven’t picked it up themselves from the news already.
“In the current digital age it can often be difficult to manage children’s exposure to news – more so during the current global situation, when most of us have had increased access to news around the world,” says Dr Paul Gelston, clinical psychologist at Dubai Community Health Centre.
“This almost-constant availability of news is also exacerbated by children’s use of social media. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, provided that news topics can be discussed openly amongst family members and with parents when required.”
Here is some advice for talking to children about distressing world events.
Don’t pretend it isn’t happening
“Children pick up on emotions and hear a lot more than we might perhaps imagine or wish,” says Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai. “If we do not make explicit what is happening and most importantly, what is happening to those closest to them, they will draw their own conclusions based on what they feel and hear.” This may include their parents’ own emotions and reactions, explains Dr Logan. “This does not necessarily mean presenting them with the detail – rather sitting them down and letting them know that something very sad has happened. Avoid complicated or worrying language and keep the conversation age appropriate. Offer them reassurance and comfort.”
Strike A Balance
When it comes to news exposure, parents understandably want to restrict their children’s access to negative or scary news events. “In general, mainstream media news is not appropriate for young children and even with older children caution should be exercised,” says Dr Rose Logan. “Coverage is at times graphic and distressing and the language may be confusing or hard to understand.” However, trying to restrict older children’s news access is not only very difficult to achieve, but could also exacerbate the problem further, says Dr Gelston. “Switching TV channels, turning off the radio and closing internet browsers is likely to increase your child’s interest in the topic being avoided, with uncertainty and a lack of clarity being added to the mix.” Instead it can be helpful to allow children to access the news in moderation, with an opportunity to discuss things where needed, says Dr Gelston: “Decide what is appropriate for your child depending on their age and maturity level. Try to be aware of what news they are being exposed to and how often, with limits set where possible.”
Be age appropriate
Remember that children of different ages will process news events very differently: “If unsure, always check your child or teen’s understanding and allow them to have age-appropriate discussions with adults,” says Dr Gelston. “Remind older children and teens to be careful of what they say in front of younger children, and be careful not to over-complicate language for young children. Always be mindful that children are often listening when adults think they are not – particularly if they are watching TV, playing games or using an iPad. Avoid discussions in front of children as much as possible if the topic is not age appropriate.”
Dr Rose Logan adds: “You can tell a child of any age how you feel but probably around the age of two they will start to have some understanding of emotions such as sadness and how to respond appropriately to someone feeling that way,” says Dr Logan. “If you wait for your child to bring questions up, they may already have developed a picture in their own minds of what has happened or is going on. Of course you can invite questions but offer some understanding of the situation as soon as you can.”
Talk to your children and remind them that many people can be concerned and worried about scary news stories, advises Dr Paul Gelston. “Let them know that it’s OK to feel this way and that you are there to support them if needed. It can be helpful to remind children that things often happen in the world that are difficult to understand, and that it’s normal to be worried or concerned at these times. However, put things in context – let children know that these events are very rare and that adults are always doing as much as possible to ensure their safety.”
Remind your child that adults are around to discuss things if needed, says Dr Gelston: “You can prompt or encourage discussion by saying things like, ‘That was an interesting news topic. What did you think of that…?’ or ‘How did you feel watching that…?’ The idea that a safe, open space is available if needed can be very reassuring for children and teens.” However, it is good to go with the flow, he adds: “If you child prefers not to discuss things or doesn’t have questions, don’t force the issue.”
Find the positives
Even in the bleakest of situations, Dr Gelston says it can be helpful to identify potential positives in difficult news stories: “Think of the emergency staff, the volunteers cleaning streets, the people collecting money or offering supplies… Highlighting potential positives within difficult news events not only makes them appear less scary, it also fosters your child’s ability to notice these positives independently. This is a great way to change the perspective during difficult world events.”
Help kids to identify fake news
Remember that a lot of news, particularly social media news, can sometimes be inaccurate or false entirely. “Encourage your children to question the validity of news sources and stories, and help them to be mindful of stances taken by certain newspapers or news outlets,” says Dr Gelston. “This encourages children to be mindful news consumers, rather than absorbing news stories without question or discussion.”
Always seek extra help if needed. If you need support or guidance or if you think your child is extremely anxious or worried about specific news topics, contact a psychologist or paediatrician for further help. The team at Dubai Community Health Centre have offered free online consultations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and are offering the same to anyone affected by the events in Lebanon.