There’s almost no way to shield kids from the barrage of news about hurricanes and earthquakes or the latest mass shooting in Las Vegas, says a pediatric psychologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, so it’s crucial to talk them through the bad news.
A main way to do that — and to convince kids they’re safe — is for adults to take care of themselves and deal with their own anxieties.
“The news is scary for kids, and the news is scary for adults,” said Colleen Cicchetti, who heads the hospital’s Center for Childhood Resilience. “My primary message usually is to remind adults that kids are picking up on what they’re seeing in the adults.
“We have to find our center, so that we can help convey to our kids that the world is safe, the protective shield of adults is still here for them. There are times when it breaks down, but there are still plenty of helpers.”
Parents shouldn’t dodge questions and be prepared to broach the subject themselves in an open way after school or over dinner.
“If kids are going to school today, they’re going to hear about this at school. Whenever possible, try to give them accurate info before they hear rumors from other kids,” she said.
* Start by asking the child open-ended questions.
Cicchetti said she would start with: “There was some scary news on TV today” or “Did you hear anything today that you’re concerned about? Find out what they know before you start volunteering a lot of information.
“Ask what they’ve heard, ask what they know, ask what they’re scared about; and try to be very child focused in terms of how to respond to what they’re anxious about. Try not to go too in-depth about it. They’re not asking the same philosophical questions as adults.”
* Turn the TV off. Children need to be reassured that the bad things are over, especially if they see video from the aftermath. After 9/11, Cicchetti said, many children thought there were hundreds of planes crashing because they saw the same video over and over.
Preschoolers need to be reminded that Las Vegas and the sites of the hurricanes are far away from home, and helpers are on the scene. They can handle facts like, “The police and the firemen and the doctors are doing what they can for the people who are there.”
Closer to home, parents could let small children know what they’re doing personally and what their schools are doing to keep them safe.
Elementary children may want to help and can brainstorm ways to jump in.
“This might be a good time to engage kids in, ‘What can we do? Go to the store and buy stuff and send it? Take money out of your piggy bank?’” said Cicchetti, who’s also involved in trauma training in the Chicago Public Schools. “As an adult you just want to do something, for kids that’s even more important.”
By around age 8, children tend to see the world in very black and white terms.
“We don’t want to squash that in kids,” she said. “Think about where they can find voice and control.”
Perhaps that’s making cards for victims’ families or writing a letter to the president.
Teenagers also might get involved in fundraising or joining violence groups.
And it’s OK not to have all the answers, she said.
For instance, if a child asks about why bad things happen, tell the truth: “We don’t know why.”