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In the Wake of Unforeseen Tragic Events

By: Upper School Director Gail Clark

October 24, 2017

Worldwide disasters have happened over the course of many years. However, in today’s world, devastating news repeatedly promulgates the television, technology, social media, and radio, perpetually shocking most people. Being surrounded by negative impacting news makes it more challenging to see all the good things going on in the world. It is hard for adults to absorb these events no less our children. What, when, and how we interact with our children about these crises becomes the question for all parents.

The ability for children to assimilate messages from news requires an understanding of developmental patterns based on age, level of cognition and gender. Repetitious news coverage of tragic events can be a serious cause for anxiety and depression in youth, whose brains and life experiences have not yet been prepared to cope independently with these realities. They result in non-specific behaviors such as certain symptoms reflecting fears and emotional upset, worried that it could happen to them or their families. 

According to Psychology Today, research clearly shows that how and when kids learn about violent tragedies greatly impacts their psychological health. The first step is to understand our children’s temperaments, developmental ages and maturity to help guide conversations with them in times of crises.

Children under age 7 should be shielded from horrific news as much as possible. At this young developmental age, children cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, so their perception is that these tragedies can happen to them literally tomorrow. It can be frightening. Because we live in an extremely visual world, and due to the way news media and TV shows are portrayed, these pictures are likely to appear scarier to them. 

One strategy parents can use to avoid exposure of these scary scenes is by recording the news to watch it at a different time when their children are not present. Keep newspaper pictures away from them because graphic pictures can be upsetting. However, if your young child does hear the tragic realities from a friend or sees devastating events on the news, let them know they are safe. For children, these events are real and could happen, so reassure them they are happening far away. However, keep in mind that “far away” to a young child might mean down the road or a half hour to a relative’s house, since the meanings of words or concepts to young children are based on their experience and development. We must remember they are still in the early stages of developing their ability to conceptualize time, space and distance.

Second, ask your children what they saw or heard, and what they are thinking. Keep your explanation to a minimum as you respond to their questions. Adults tend to give more information than is necessary for a young child.

Third, it helps children to focus on actions that are being done to help people in need. Let them know first responders and government officials are doing everything they can to protect them.

Children of 8 -10 years of age also internalize sensational news, thinking it could happen to them. But they are old enough to go beyond just the visual, cognitively trying to make sense of what they see and hear, sometimes creating misconceptions about the news. They will want to know why the disaster happened, why the people had to suffer, and why it happened in the first place. By not talking to our children about it, they are left on their own to make sense of the world, which leaves answers to the discrepancies of other often less reliable sources. On the other hand, giving them too much information can be more than they need at the moment. If we encourage children to lead the conversation, then parents can ask questions that make them elaborate their thoughts, so they understand the child’s point of view.

Checking in with children from a place of assurance might sound something like: "There is so much craziness in the news - what's caught your attention lately? What do you make of what you're hearing? What are your friends talking about? What worries you most? What makes you feel hopeful?" However, in the course of the conversation, parents must be careful not to show their own fear, since children are quick to read parents’ anxiety, and will feed off of it. According to the Washington Post, “Check in with your child often, but from a place of assurance, not anxiety.” 

Another way to help 8 to 10 year old children through sad times is having them participate in helping people who have experienced a tragedy. One, it can ease their stress, knowing they are doing something about it, and two, it redirects their thinking toward helping to understand others. For example, a Rossman student was terribly upset over the devastation of recent hurricanes, so he decided all on his own to set up a lemonade stand to earn money to help people in Texas. He earned over $400. When children can help in time of worry, it releases anxiety and at the same time gives them the feeling they are actively helping, while fulfilling a basic human need. Therefore, all does not seem hopeless.

Finally, often adolescents hear about the most devastating news from their friends or social media, even before getting home from school. Again, it is better to have a conversation with them rather than letting them misconstrue information from their peers. At their impressionable ages, children are developing their initial perceptions about politics and their sense of justice or morality, so accurate and thoughtful information is vital. Conversations led by them will give parents a chance to share their own insights as well. They should watch the news with their adolescent and then share their thoughts. Parents should feel they must deliver wisdom, just let the conversations continue over time.  The news is a place to begin conversations about what is happening in our country and our world, good and bad.

Children of all generations have had to assimilate tragedies commensurate with the times in which they lived. For the GIs, it was Pearl Harbor and Korean War. For The Boomers, it was the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War. For the Gen-Xers it was watching the Challenger disaster and the Gulf War, and children in the New Millenial generation felt the devastation of the events of September 11, 2001. 

With today’s generation, the K Generation, it is hearing the news of several level 3-5 hurricanes and tornadoes, unprecedented flooding, and record-breaking forest fire destruction, as well as horrific mass shootings. Families and schools preach goodness, kindness and the practice of civility to our children, yet at times our children view the opposite occurring in the vast world around them, which leaves them wondering what is happening and why. 

Reassure your children that they are safe and there is much more good in the world. Also, since they do understand and assimilate information differently than adults, promote conversations that will help them in their own way of thinking. Guide them through shocking and sad events and take the necessary time to correct misconceptions and soothe their fears. Validating their thoughts and feelings help children process information better from a calmer and more accurate perspective and promotes greater trust as conversations continue.


Sources: Children, Teens, Families, and Mass Media: The Millennial Generation by Rose M. Kundanis, PBS Parents, Psychology Today, National Association of School Psychologists, Healthy Children, Common Sense Media

Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here

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