How Parents Can Reduce Children’s Indirect Trauma from the News

The Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook School shootings, the September 11 terrorist attacks. What thoughts and feelings come to mind at the mention of these events? That might depend on whether you were there, your personal connection to them, your age at the time, and your news media consumption during the tragedy.

I still remember my school day as an adolescent on September 11, watching non-stop news coverage, feeling despair, confusion, and deep concern for people I didn’t even know. Later, these feelings were coupled with hope and inspiration as I heard of profound heroism, all coming together to instill a deeper sense of patriotism and humanity. Yet it was a difficult time that we all had difficulty processing.

News reports of research describe how media exposure during times like these can be linked to acute stress, and sometimes has long-term effects. As Barbara J. Wilson explains in the Future of Children, children might be especially vulnerable to this effect. Continuous coverage of child abductions, war, terrorism, and even natural disasters make it difficult to protect children from disturbing news stories. Children may experience fear, anxiety, and trauma. And parents may not recognize that the symptoms their children manifest–such as physical aches, loss of appetite, nightmares, or clingy or aggressive behavior–are connected to media exposure.

What can parents do?

It depends on the child’s age, but all children benefit from limited media exposure and constructive conversations with a calm parent about what’s going on. Parents can promote coping strategies, such as exercise, emotional expression, or special play to help deal with frightening images in the media. Older children can be taught that the news overemphasizes crime and violence, and many terrible events, such as child kidnappings, occur infrequently in the real world. For younger children, it might be best to provide physical comfort and turn off the device. Permitting children under the age of eight to see graphic images in the news, even when the TV is on in the background, may present challenges, since it’s more difficult to explain these things to younger children. For more information, see the Future of Children issue on Children and Electronic Media.