Q. My 5-year-old seems to be terribly affected by world news, even though we make a point not to keep the television on for very long before or after school. She'll often wake up in the middle of the night and ask to sleep with us, saying she's "afraid of those bad things." Should we be keeping world events from her? How young is too young to be exposed to news images and stories?
A. Parents need to know that the bombardment of horrific news is too much for young children to incorporate into their minds and emotions. Even with the TV on for short periods of time, your child is soaking up what's going in the world. It could be a report on a robbery, murder, tsunami, or war.
Rather than allow her to pick up sound bites of confusing information from TV news that are difficult for her to sort out and understand, it's best for your to just talk about what has occurred in as plain terms as possible.
In the middle of the night you have a couple of options as to how to proceed. If you sleep in a bed big enough to accommodate her, you can let her snuggle in next to you. She'll feel safe and protected there.
If on the other hand you'd prefer her sleeping in her own bed, when she attempts to climb in yours, escort her back to her bed while telling her there are no bad things to be afraid of, you are there to keep her safe. If you suspect she's had a dream or nightmare, say clearly, "You had a dream. You imagined something bad in your brain but it didn't really happen."
(This approach will help her deal with bad thoughts that enter her brain in the middle of the night. But if these nighttime requests to sleep in your bed become a habit you'd rather not indulge, provide her with a sleeping bag for her to sleep in on the floor of your bedroom. Or when you awaken as she climbs in your bed, take her back to her bedroom and lie down with her until she falls back asleep.)
When she's a bit older -- between 8 and 10 years old -- you can begin watching news programs with her or reading to her from the newspaper. Then, you'll need to interpret the various news stories in a way she'll clearly understand.
If she were 8 now, you could go to the library for a book on whatever news topic was worrying her: tsunamis, crime, etc. School-aged children feel more comfortable with difficult topics when they better understand them.
Also, kids of this age are empathetic to victims on the news, so anything they can do to help makes them feel better. Work with your child to find a way to aid the people in need. For example, help her send some of her allowance to help the tsunami victims or neighborhood organizations that help kids her age. She'll feel empowered knowing that she's making a difference.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.
Originally published on HealthyKids.com, January 2004.