…And How to Ensure It’s Developmentally-Appropriate
“I feel hopeful,” my son reflected the day after watching the Inauguration Ceremonies as part of his school day. While just one week ago, he was saying he was feeling exasperated, “tired of making history” as we learned of the U.S. Capitol attacks. It’s been quite a roller coaster ride in our national and world news with a global pandemic and the many issues that have taken center stage in our social, political and economic lives. And though an inundation of news can contribute to fear and anxiety, some fact-based information is helpful and important. But reflecting on those facts as a family are equally important to educate children and teens on how to make meaning from those bigger events and how they relate to their own lives.
When talking to other parents about scary news stories including racial injustice or the COVID-19 pandemic, many are reluctant to share much if anything with their children. “I don’t want to scare them,” is the thought. Yet children, no matter their age, are impacted if parents are impacted. Though young or even school age children may not know about the U.S. Capitol building or have any sense of what the events meant in U.S. history, our children were “catching” the emotions of their parents.
So the first reason why meaningful reflections with children on news stories is imperative is the spread of emotional contagion. Catching another’s emotions is a reality and particularly potent in this stay-at-home world coupled with the layer of pandemic anxiety we are all feeling. When children are not guided by parents to make meaning from fear or other intense feelings felt in their family, they create their own stories to fill in the gap. These stories may exacerbate their own fears and contain false assumptions about what’s worrying Mom, Dad or Grandma. Often, stories turn inward as they feel that the something that is wrong with the world must relate to them. “What did I do wrong? Or what will happen to me?” are some questions that might go through a child’s mind as they witness emotional parents who haven’t communicated anything about what’s upsetting them.
Indeed, it’s difficult to know what to communicate and how much to communicate. Though we know our children may not comprehend the full picture of events, how much will they understand? What’s too much? What’s too little? And truly, how much do they need to understand in order to be informed?
Getting the Facts, Turning Off the News, and Turning Up the Discussion
Yes, it’s important to get the facts straight when a scary or significant event occurs. And most kids say they get their news from family members first. Kids report that they value the news, according to Common Sense Media findings:
About half of children (48 percent) say that following the news is important to them, and more than two-thirds (70 percent) say that consuming news makes them feel smart and knowledgeable. And 63% say they are afraid, angry or depressed by the news.1
Though the research continues to raise questions about the extent to which news can traumatize a child, it is clear that post-traumatic stress disorder or an experience of trauma is possible when children watch violent or disturbing news stories.
According to parental reports of 179 children one month after the September 11 attacks, there was a positive relationship between exposure to television, print, or internet coverage of the tragedy and symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, regardless of whether the images were positive or negative.2
Television and internet news tend to use the same video clips over and again and experts claim that it’s possible young children can be re-traumatized each time they watch a violent event repeated. For this reason, it’s important to seek out the facts – watch or read trusted sources of information that cite research (like this site!) and use multiple sources to support claims made – and then turn it off, set it down, or otherwise, move on to discussing what you’ve learned to help your child better understand what stories and information you are learning together.
Teaching Responsible Decision-Making Skills
Second, we teach discernment and responsible decision-making skills when we reflect and make meaning from local, national and global events. In addition to the feelings’ contagion that can be confusing for children and teens as significant larger scale events unfold, there is also a significant opportunity cost to their social and emotional skills if there is little to no reflection. Children and teens require numerous rehearsals with consequential thinking in order to develop the higher order thinking skill of responsible decision-making. Everyday decisions like which color socks to wear help exercise choices on a micro-scale. But global and national events offer an opportunity to rehearse critical thinking skills on a much larger scale. Questions can be considered such as, What happens if a leader makes a particular decision? What might be the ripple effect? What responsibility does s/he have for the outcome? What happens when crowds gather that are not wearing masks during a global pandemic? What is the level of risk? What is the danger? And what is the responsibility of each individual in these circumstances? There are no textbook answers to these questions. But families who wrestle with these difficult questions allow for complex thinking. Children and teens who are just beginning to build the neuro-pathways that allow them to connect cause to effect exercise those mental muscles and begin to formulate their own guiding principles as they respond with what they believe to be true and important.
Creating a Family Culture of Safe Spaces for Tough Issues
And finally, when you regularly create a psychologically safe place (where ideas are not judged but respected, considered and listened to) for challenging issues to be raised, your children and teens learn that there is a time, space, care and concern for dealing with complexity in family life. This creates a family culture in which tough choices and tough issues are not only accepted but also welcomed into the family dialogue. So when your child or teen gets into a sticky ethical situation (Cheating on a test? Plagiarizing content? Witnessing a friend bullying?), they will feel safe to bring those tough issues to you knowing that you can hold a safe space for dealing with complexity.
So how do you ensure that you are talking to your young child, your school-age child, your tween or your teen in age-appropriate ways? Here are some tips that if you follow, will help you stay on course no matter their age/stage!
Ask and Listen
Asking your child what they know and what they think about a particular tough topic and really listening to their response can ensure that you are remaining in the developmentally-appropriate zone. Why? It’s easy to project our adult fears without even realizing that we are making assumptions about what our children know, feel and think. We may be grappling in our heads with complexities that are far beyond any our child may concern themselves with or even be able to comprehend. Asking open questions about tough topics offers insights into where our children need help filling in gaps or reframing their thinking. Stick to basics. For example, after watching the Inauguration ceremonies, you might ask, “What do you recall about what was said or who said it?” Allow their comments to lead you.
Focus on Feelings First
In order to keep conversations safe and age-appropriate, focus on feelings. A feelings check-in with some feelings words or faces (poster, handout, book?) to prompt thinking and recognition can help reveal what’s going on inside your child and offer them a chance to build self-awareness. If your child offers that they feel scared or worried, help them deal with those feelings. Check out these healthy coping strategies that you can practice with your child for grades K-4 and for grades 5-12.
Keep It Simple – How It Affects Me and You
More details can add to a child’s worry, fear and confusion. So if you are discussing a complex news story like the pandemic, stick to simple highlights that you know they’ll understand. Young children will want to understand how it directly impacts them day to day. Children’s books can be a tremendous source of comfort and confidence for parents who are wading into topics that make them uncomfortable. For tweens and teens, they are keenly aware of fairness and justice issues so build on that newfound awareness by discussing what seems fair or unfair to them. Also, bring back consequential thinking by asking them what they predict will happen as a result of today’s events and decisions. Be sure to follow up and discuss as events and consequences unfold. Where they on the mark? Was it too difficult to predict?
Also, if you are hearing worries or fears that are bigger than the news truly merits, be sure to reframe by sharing alternative perspectives along with helpful facts. First, affirm that it’s normal they might feel worried or scared. The simple act of accepting their feelings will alleviate some of the heat of the emotion as they feel understood. Then, seek facts to support the reframing of their perspective. You might say, “I know you are worried about getting COVID, but did you know that we are taking every precaution the experts tell us to take to ensure we stay safe? Let’s take a look at what we are doing and how that aligns with what medical experts say.”
Raise a Discerning Digital Citizen
As we critically examine news’ sources and stories, our children will begin to learn that not every word in print is true. And in fact, that in order to find valuable information in the morass of media, we have to learn how to discern what is useful, what is based on research, what is wise, and what is not worth paying attention to. Next time, you are huddled around a laptop together, enter a keyword you know was in recent news in a search engine and look at all of the sources that are listed together. You might ask your child, “Which ones would you read? Which ones would you trust? Why?” The more we engage our children and teens in examining our news’ sources and stories together, the more they will grow the critical habit of discernment.
The internet and within it, social media can serve as incredible tools for information and connection if we learn to use them wisely. But they can also serve as tools for destruction if they infest individuals with feelings of fear and helplessness. And if our children and teens do not learn how to be active agents of their own media consumption, they will inevitably face this issue. As confident parents, developing the habit of reflecting on news together and critically reviewing sources prepares our children and teens to become the informed citizens we hope they will be.
1. Robb, Michael, B. (2017). News and America’s Kids; How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense.
2. Saylor, C. F., Cowart, B. L., Lipovsky, J. A., Jackson, C., & Finch, A. J. Jr. (2003). Media exposure to September 11: Elementary school students’ experiences and posttraumatic symptoms. American Behavioral Scientist, 46, 1622-1642.