“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Fred Rogers*
There has been talk in the news this morning of possible terrorist attacks in Sydney, the city where I live. As parents, how do we respond to this constant barrage of news about shocking and violent events – whether they are terrorism, wars, awful mass shootings, or natural disasters? How do we help our children live happily and confidently in a world which holds so much horror and insecurity?
It is only with a robust sense of their own cherished place in the world that children will have the resource that it takes to tackle the many challenges facing our planet at the moment. When these things happen, we need to shield them from details they will not be able to make sense of, put our own “oxygen masks” on first to make sure we are in good shape ourselves, listen to our children and answer their questions with pictures of what humans can do together for good, and offer them the huge resassurance of regular Special Time.
As adults, we can put these events into a bigger context. We know that people can and will band together to pull through. Our children don’t always have such a big picture and it makes it hard for them to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing.
It is not helpful for very young children to know all the details of a well-publicized crisis. They can’t digest exposure to such human irrationality, senseless violence and suffering. And they are affected by the way the adults around them are reacting. Often, these reactions can make them feel unsafe.
The first and most important thing: TURN OFF YOUR TELEVISION AND RADIO WHILE YOUR CHILDREN ARE AROUND. Children are absorbing everything that is around them. You don’t want their understanding of a dreadful event to include graphic details that will terrorise them, or the hysterical and alarmist tone of the news reporter. Your understanding of the event will not be helped by a contstant stream of media comment on it either. Get your news later when your children are not around – and look for it from sources that do not peddle hysteria. You will probably learn all you need to know about it one way or another, if it is an important event, without watching your news feed all day.
In addition, these are some ways you can help your children understand these events:
- If you are affected by the disaster, find an adult to listen to you for a while when the children are not around. Watching a disaster unfold, let alone being directly affected by it, can make us feel scared and concerned. Our children get worried when we get worried. We will be able to communicate about it in ways that are helpful to our children if we are not ourselves upset, angry or grief stricken. With a good listener, we can release those feelings, and begin to put what has happened into a broader context of how much people care about one another.
- Shield children from the media. Even seemingly small details can worry a child. TV reports, newspaper photographs, and radio commentary can communicate that adults do not feel safe, in charge, or trustful of others. Exposure to the graphic images in newspapers or on TV, and the interpretations of news people can be frightening. It is easy to underestimate the effects that these images have on children. As I said, get your news after the children have gone to bed, or while you’re commuting in your car.
- With your children, concentrate on the present moment, on the goodness of being together, and on moving forward in your daily routine, rather than on the details of the disaster.
- Explain the events in general terms, and in terms that your child can understand. Let them ask the questions, answer as generally as possible and don’t volunteer more information that they are asking for. Also offer reassurance. For example you could acknowledge that sometimes some people get hurt in ways which leave them angry and not able to think well. They may do things which hurt other people, but lots of people are working to stop them from doing that and to keep people safe. However, we don’t have all the answers, and sometimes people will get hurt.
- Focus on the positive, on stories of compassion, concern and co-operation. You can explain that people will learn from what happened, and point also to the co-operation of many thousands of people around the world and the help that has arrived at the scene. There are many positive stories to tell. I love this quote from red Rogers, a television personality of days gone by, who had a charming children’s program on US TV: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” *
- Give explicit reassurance to children who are exposed to graphic images on TV or to tense, distressed adult talk. Tell them they are safe, that you will keep them safe, and that you are doing what you can to respond to the news they have heard. Your children need as much reassurance as you can give that harm won’t come to them.
- Expect that your children may show their upsets in odd ways. Children often can’t tell us directly what is wrong, but they will find a series of small things to be upset about – you have served up the wrong food, they want to sit in the car where their brother is sitting, they can’t find their favourite toy. These small upsets are often how children bring up much bigger worries – sometimes worries so big they cannot articulate them, or face them directly. Avoid asking “why” – instead, just listen. You might say “I’m sorry that you can’t find your toy.” And then listen to their upset. Don’t step immediately to fixing the problem. Trust me, it is probably not (much) about the toy.
- When you have some time, do some Special Time. this is a one-on-one playtime where, for a measured amount of time, you tell a child you will play with them just how they want. Don’t make suggestions, give advice or try to teach. In this time, children will often show us their concerns in what and how they choose to play. Our relaxed enthusiasm for them at these times is a healing balm.
- Find opportunities to laugh (Playlistening). laughter dissolves fear. Whenever we can put aside our seriousness, put the children in charge, play the fool, the less competent one, and join in (and be the butt of) their jokes, they will laugh. Trust that this laughter will also help to wash away tensions which they, and you, are carrying.
More Info? You may find this article, by Patty Wipfler, foudner of Hand in Hand Parenting, helpful: http://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/helping-children-exposed-to-shocking-events/
* You can find out more about Fred Rogers HERE.