Hearing tragic news is tough enough for adults with a reasonable conscience, but what does it do to our kids? And at what age should we allow them to hear what’s happening in the world?
As a pediatrician, I get these and other questions regularly from good parents. Mothers (and fathers) want to shield their children from the violence that surrounds them — yet they want them to be aware of issues so that they know how to live well in a tough world.
Parents of young children today have a harder time raising kids than I did back in the 1990s and early 2000s. ISIS didn’t make the front page of the papers — but we did have al Qaeda and 9/11. News channels showed the planes flying into the two World Trade Center towers ad nauseum. I was scared to death.
I remember wanting to pick each of my kids up at school immediately and bring them home for good. But of course, I couldn’t. I did have to talk with them about how the attack on America changed our lives forever.
Racial tensions weren’t as high then. There was inner city crime, but we didn’t see groups of people wanting to shoot cops or walking down streets lined with signs saying “Black Lives Matter,” as I did recently with my granddaughter. I’m just glad she can’t read yet.
News channels, unfortunately, dwell on the horrific and they feel compelled to replay tragedies again and again. With the internet in the palms of our youngsters’ hands, the act of trying to guard and protect our kids from senseless shootings, racial rants, and the violent beheadings that occur in faraway countries feels impossible to achieve.
A sixth grade girl may talk about horrible images, but a boy won’t because he doesn’t want to look wimpy.
So what should parents do? I have a few tips that I’ve seen work.
1.) Limit the visual images your child sees.
When you turn off the TV, the iPad, or iPhone, your kids will call you mean — but too bad. Your job is to keep their eyes from seeing graphic violence, and the only way to do that is turn off their electronics. Limit computer and cellphone use to public areas in your home, like the kitchen or family room. Period.
Once children see something horrible, they can’t “unsee” it. Once they see a harsh visual, that image embeds itself in their minds. You and I can manipulate the image and make it go away — but they can’t. So the best thing to do is prevent it from hitting their eyes in the first place.
Many parents think boys are more immune from violence than girls but this is not true. In my experience, in fact, many boys have a terribly hard time processing violence. If you’ve ever had a sixth-grade boy with trouble sleeping, you’ll know what I mean. Many are so frightened by what they see that they have nightmares. A sixth-grade girl may talk about the images, but a boy won’t because he doesn’t want to look wimpy.
2.) Give realistic reassurances about your child’s safety.
Many children have difficulty discerning the place and time of events. If they see the Twin Towers fall in New York City — but they live in California — they may believe that towers very close to them will fall, too.
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The same is true for children living in upstate New York who see shootings on the south side of Chicago. They genuinely believe the shootings were just around the corner and that they will see them as well.
You and I know that statistically, most children are not going to be shot by ISIS or see a room full of people killed. They could — but the likelihood of their being in a car accident is far greater.
It is important to sit down with your child and ask him periodically what he worries about. This is an easy conversation starter. If he brings up terrorism, school shootings, or the like, look at him and calmly say that these things are very sad to see but that your job is to protect him from being harmed by any of them. Then tell him that your job is also to worry for him — so he should stop worrying. You don’t want to say that bad things will never happen to him, but reassuring your child that he will most likely never see such things is very reasonable.
3.) Pay attention to what your child is hearing at school.
Many children get an earful about current events either from a well-meaning teacher or a not-so-well-meaning classmate. Classmates like to shock their peers and they may show or talk about gruesome events. Be mindful of this and keep your ears open. Sometimes it’s easiest to ask if they hear anything at school about things going on in the world. Many kids will tell you but if your child is a middle school or older boy, he may not for fear that he appears weak.
Our job is to be the barrier between our kids and the ugliness around them for as long as we can be.
4.) Be on the lookout for sleep problems.
Many young kids who can’t process violence or fear end up transferring their issues into dreams. Others simply have difficulty falling asleep for fear that something bad will happen to them.
The dark of night; hearing noises outside a window; or being too away far from a parent — all of this can arouse fear in them. Then they can’t fall asleep. Still others can’t articulate why they can’t fall asleep because they can’t identify their discomfort as generalized anxiety.
5.) Take on their worry.
I don’t mean this literally but figuratively. When an anxious child can’t seem to stop worrying about safety, I have found that acknowledging his or her need to worry really helps. If a child is in my office struggling with a medical issue or with anxiety, my job is to fix the problem and worry for him.
I literally ask if he’ll give me the job of carrying on his worry so that he doesn’t have to. Knowing that an adult is willing to step in and take over brings relief to many kids. Simply telling them to stop worrying won’t do the trick.
Our children’s lives will be filled with more complex dangers in the future, and we mothers and fathers must never shy away from dealing with them. Our job is to be the barrier between them and the ugliness around them as long as we can be. Don’t worry about overprotecting your kids from seeing violence. Protect them.
Let their young minds develop and expand as they should: in childlike fashion. Those young minds and hearts will too soon be inundated with life’s tragedies — and once those come in, it’s hard to get them out.
Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She has also raised her own four children. She is the author of the online course, “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids,” which is part of The Strong Parent Project.