How to Speak to Your Kids
"Why did someone shoot those little kids' mom and dad?" This is a pretty unsettling question in general, but it's especially upsetting when it's coming from your 8-year-old after you've tucked him safely into his bed and wished him "sweet dreams." Apparently, my son Chance had seen a television newscast earlier in the day about parents living in Florida who had been murdered, and he had now become terrified that the same horrible thing could potentially happen to our own family.
Experts say that his reaction was understandable. As adults, we've learned over time how to distance ourselves from the tragedies that play out every day on television -- but to children, disturbing news that they see on TV can give rise to something called "mean world syndrome," says Parents advisor Michael Rich, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. "Kids may start to think that the world is a more violent and dangerous place than it really is because so many news stories these days tend to focus on the sensational and the tragic."
In fact, past research has found that about a third of grade-schoolers regularly watch TV newscasts, and today's 24/7 media environment means that kids can be (and probably are) continually bombarded with the disturbing sights and sounds that come from being surrounded by that type of exposure. Although there's no way (and no reason) to insulate your child from every outlet, you can ensure that he gets a safe dose of reality by taking certain precautions.
Tame Tube Time
Children tend to be less frightened by the violent images that they see in fictional TV shows and movies as they get older because they've learned that the events aren't real. However, they become more anxious and scared by news stories because they know that those events actually took place. In one study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, 8- to 12-year-olds who were told that TV images of war, shootings, house fires, and plane crashes were real had a much stronger emotional reaction than kids who were told that the images were fictional. This is just one of the reasons why experts recommend monitoring and reducing your child's exposure to TV news programs. Indeed, the networks do seem to devote a large portion of their news coverage to crime, disasters, war, and other upsetting topics. But if you feel that you must watch the news when your child is around, at least try to limit the time you keep the TV on. You should also take a moment to calmly answer any questions that your kid might have about what she's seeing, and explain what the reporters are saying. It's helpful to remind her how her own situation and environment differ from what she just saw on the news, says Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., author of Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. In addition, you can point out the positive things that you saw on television and the fact that, in general, more good things happen than bad each day -- we just don't always get to hear about them.