Dr. Meghan Moreno isn’t clairvoyant, but after everything we’ve seen and heard on the news this week, I’m having second thoughts after reading her JAMA Pediatrics Patient Page:

After any tragedy, such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, parents and other adults may find it challenging to decide what information to share with children. It is important to consider age and developmental stage in how this information is presented to a child.

 

Children today have so many avenues from which to choose to communicate, to get informed, and to be entertained. Even for those whose media habits are well-supervised or whose bubbles are made practically impenetrable by their “helicopter parents,” our children are exposed to sounds and images — words and deeds — that are ugly, unkind, hurtful, and, all too often, obscene. Just in this past week, the cacophony of sounds and images coming in over the airwaves, the interwebs, social media, and in regular social conversation has been (and, truth be told, should be) disturbing. Exposure to many of these sounds and images in children may be unavoidable, especially in homes where there may be a media device or two in every room. And remember that children have social lives; they talk to each other and sometimes even show each other things that parents might not have a clue of. Dr. Moreno says this may be a good starting point for helping children of all ages make heads or tails of bad news:

A good place to start in discussing a tragic event is by asking what your child has already heard. After you listen carefully, you can ask what questions they have. It is important to be honest about what happened and to focus on the basics. It is not necessary to share every detail, and it is important to avoid speculating about what might happen next. Listen closely to your child for misinformation or underlying fears. Remind your child that you are there for him or her and will keep them safe. A key underlying message for parents to convey is, “It is ok if this bothers you; we are here to support each other.”

 

Older children and teenagers may have the maturity and curiosity (or those may be emerging) where honest, thoughtful discussions lead to better understanding and insight with the least amount of personal disruption. For younger kids, it might be trickier:

For young children, watching a tragedy on the news can be frightening. News media coverage can include graphic images and sounds. It is best to share information with children by discussing it rather than showing the media coverage. Young children may have more questions about whether they are truly safe and may need help separating fantasy from reality. Some children may become clingy or regress in behavior such as wetting the bed or sucking their thumbs. It is important to be patient and to support your child if he or she reacts in this way.

 

Whether watching a natural disaster unfold on TV, empathizing with victims of man’s inhumanity against man, or reacting to hate-filled or violent rhetoric coming out of someone’s mouth, Dr. Moreno gives parents advice for helping children cope:

> Be a calm presence. It is okay for children to see adults be sad or cry, but consider excusing yourself if you experience intense emotions.

> Reassure your child of his or her safety. Consider reviewing your family’s plans for responding to an emergency.

> Maintain the routine. To give your child a sense of normalcy, keep up your family’s usual dinner, homework, and bedtime routine.

> Spend extra time together. This can foster your child’s sense of security. Encourage your child to express his or her feelings.

> Do something to help. Consider ways that you and your family can help survivors and their families.

 

Look for clues that your child isn’t coping well. Complaints of headache, stomachache, and fatigue, and signs of anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, and inability to sleep soundly may be indications to arrange a visit with your pediatrician.

 

(Image: JAMA Pediatrics)