“Mama, I’m afraid there will be an earthquake” was my then 6-year-old daughter’s tearful pronouncement one night many years ago, just before going to bed. Investigating where this sudden fearful notion came from, I realized that she had seen the news about a tsunami occurring in another Asian country. She was crying over an incident that happened miles away from her and did not directly affect her in any way.
Though one of the things I do is work with people to manage their feelings and thoughts in the midst of crises, I still found myself having trouble finding just the right words to say to allay my baby’s fears and let her know things will be okay. After all, in some parts of the world, things were not good, and that people have lost their loved ones in the most tragic way. How can a typical 6-year-old deal with that kind of information?
Unless you and your family live in isolation from others, exposure to upsetting events and news is likely going to be a way of life. We are constantly connected to one another through various media (TV, print, social media platforms), and our children are just as connected too. When tragedies and disasters strike and it happens in a big way, we are all likely to feel its ripple effects in the various media that we have at our disposal.
The problem is, for our kids, many of these messages are not tailored to their language. As parents, we are always told to supervise our children and their media use. Still, let’s face it, not all of us can supervise our children 24/7. Even if we were able to monitor what they see or hear about, they will still not have a wealth of life experiences to gain the right perspective and put things in context. To a very young child, hearing about a tragedy where other children their age were victimized, or people who could be mommies and daddies were killed, could be overwhelming.
If I were to hazard a guess (using my experience as mommy and therapist), the stream of thoughts going through their mind -- at lightning speed -- would probably be something like this: “could this happen to me?” “Will I lose my mommy as well?” “What will happen to all my toys/friends/things/etc.?” “Will my mommy / daddy / lolo / lola / etc. be able to keep me safe?” “How will they do that?”
At age 4 or age 7, our kids will not have the intellectual and emotional means yet to evaluate information that is true, credible, or worthy of attention. Sifting of essential and non-essential information is a skill that we continue to tweak as adults. At times when our kids are inadvertently exposed to information that is way beyond their capacity to comprehend, how can we, as their parents, be the calming figure amidst the storm of thoughts and emotions they may experience?
I've summarzied below some good, sensible advice from pediatricians and psychologists that we can do to help our kids digest “adult-sized” information in “bite-size” pieces:
PREPARE Be emotionally and mentally ready for any conversation about the topic. First, manage your own reactions when talking to your child. If they see you calm and rational, they will follow suit.
Second, think about what you will say. Other experts say that it is best to find a way to bring up a pressing topic of the day especially if you know that your child has been exposed to it. You might see them expressing their concerns during their downtimes like just before they go to bed or when they get home from a fun activity.
Be ready to have the difficult conversations during times when you least expect it, which leads me to the second bit of advice.
EXPLORE When talking about tough stuff seen on media, find out what your children know. For example, if you know that they have been exposed to the recent news about bombings and violence happening all around us, open up the conversation with something like “I saw you watching the news earlier about ____.” Wait for your child to respond.
In some scenarios, your child may actually not say anything more. It can mean two things: first, possibly this situation has not affected them, or, second, they still need some time to process what they heard. When the conversation goes nowhere, drop it. Wait for another occasion when they want to talk about it.
However, if it turns out that they are affected by it, the following third bit of advice from the experts can be taken.
SHARE If your child does have questions, give them basic information that is not too vague, but it is accurate enough to be suitable for their age. Avoid giving very graphic information. For example, saying to your 5-year-old child in the wake of bombing news, “Yes, there was an explosion, and some people got hurt badly” is sufficient information.
For grade schoolers, add information about what is being done such as: “…but the police and the government are doing all they can to catch those who did this and to make sure this does not happen again.” It is accurate, succinct, and objective.
Admit to your feelings too when appropriate. “Yes, I feel sad and mad that this happened.” By doing this, you are showing your child that all emotions are valid. It is very likely they are feeling the same thing; seeing their parent admit to having these emotions somewhat normalizes their experience. In fact, bear in mind that when tough times happen (whether to them or others around them) experiencing negative emotions are a normal way of reacting to not so normal events.
PROTECT AND REASSURE In the midst of hearing bad news, our children’s sense of safety and security and their sense of control wavers. As much as possible, try to keep them away from a constant barrage of images and sounds -- it is best if you can turn off the news especially when your younger children are around. (Click here to help you answer the question of “how much is too much” when it comes to media exposure.)
Let them know that they are safe, and you will keep them safe. Repeat the message that other people are also trying to help fix the problem. Some children may keep asking the same questions over and over again -- this is expected. Be patient and just continue to reassure and protect them from too much information moving forward.
ACT This fifth piece of advice is a very personal one. Consider it optional, but you may need to take action in situations where your child needs to achieve some sense of control over very overwhelming situations like hearing bad news.
How? Brainstorm with them ways that they can help out in some way or deal with one aspect of their fears and worries. My child and I visited an earthquake simulator in a science center in our community to help her know what she can do in the event of an earthquake.
After hearing about displaced children and families in the aftermath of a disaster like bombings or terror threats, you and your child can join volunteer organizations in providing assistance in any way possible such as through giving donations in kind (toys, clothes). Doing something can help them feel some sense of control.
A final note: troubling information does not just come from media. On a daily basis, our children are exposed to realities of life: family conflict, aggression in the streets, and economic stresses. The list above still applies. Let your children experience reality in “bite-size pieces” -- just give them enough information to understand things at their level.
Conversations do not end in one sitting. Most important though, is how you handle these conversations in a calm and compassionate manner.
Many times, our children can cope and adjust to many negative things they see and hear in the news and daily life. Here are some potential warning signs of difficulty coping, as outlined in Healthy Children. Should you see these in your child, consider seeking professional opinion and help:
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Sleep problems – having trouble sleeping or waking, having nightmares or night terrors
Physical complaints – these can span the range of feeling tired or not well, to having actual physical symptoms without any medical basis like regular headaches or stomachaches
Behavior and emotional changes – these can include regression (old behaviors coming back like thumb sucking, tantrums, clinging), or erratic moods and behaviors like increased aggression, frequent crying, or isolation; for school age children, academic problems which were not apparent before may also suddenly emerge
Ma. Araceli Balajadia-Alcala is a registered psychologist who holds both private and hospital-based clinical practices. She has also recently become a part-time lecturer in the Psychology Department of De La Salle University.