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By Adam Aronson, MD

Adam Aronson, MDMissing aircraft, earthquakes, shootings at schools–our children are frequently exposed to news of tragedies and natural disasters. Children will of course have questions as they work to understand and cope with the information they hear and images they see. It is extremely important for parents monitor how their kids react and to provide answers and age appropriate guidance. In this month’s medical memo we provide tools to help families deal with traumatic events.

Monitoring and Managing Media Exposure

Media coverage can trigger increased fears and anxiety in children. Kids are bombarded in many media sources with graphic images and stories of injury and death – all of which can be especially upsetting. It is important for parents to monitor what media sources their children are exposed to. Parents of very young children, who are unlikely to understand what they are hearing and seeing, may choose to severely limit or even eliminate all exposure to media. Even if children seem to be busy playing or involved in some other activity, they are often aware of what their parents and older siblings are watching, so be aware of their presence.

For older children, parents should watch the coverage along with them. Teenagers also get information from the internet and social media sources such as Facebook and Twitter – so it is helpful for parents to monitor these outlets.

These measures give parents in depth knowledge of what exactly teens see and hear – enabling parents to provide the best answers to questions.

Be Open

It is extremely important for families to open and to communicate with their kids at all times – but especially when tragedies and disasters are prominent stories in the media. Parents should start the conversation. If your children have not already heard about an event, they surely will in the in coming days. Indeed, not talking about tragedies can sometimes make things more frightening for a child.

Tell children that it is okay to be upset and scared, but make sure they understand that you are there to discuss what they have heard and seen.

Ask them what they have seen and what they know. Listen carefully and patiently – make mental notes of how much they know, if they have heard any misinformation, and how they seem to be reacting. Encourage them to ask questions and be sure to answer those questions as honestly and directly as possible. Use simple, clear, age appropriate words and language as you discuss their feelings and correct misconceptions.

As the discussions take place, parents need to reassure their children that they are safe and review plans to protect them from harm. Share your own feelings so they see it is okay to be sad and feel empathy for the victims. It is okay to tell kids that we do not always have an explanation for why tragedies happen. It can be very helpful to share positive images – make sure they learn about heroic actions of first responders and how many people are working to help the victims who were affected.

Once the preliminary discussion ends – make sure your child knows that you are always available to answer questions and talk more. Ask them daily what they have heard and what questions they have. Media coverage of these tragic events can span weeks and so it is critical that these conversations happen frequently.

Observe Children’s Reactions and Behaviors

In situations where younger children are exposed to graphic or detailed media coverage of tragic events, they often experience feelings of fear and uncertainty. They struggle to understand what it means for them and the safety of their parents and family. Parents should take notice of loss of previously acquired developmental skills and disturbances in sleep such as not wanting to go to bed or having nightmares. Young children may also have difficulties separating from parents to go to preschool or to play at a friend’s house.

School age children may have persistent feeling of fear and concern regarding their own safety as well as the safety of friends and family. They may experience significant sadness and sometimes even shame or guilt. Sleep disturbances are common. If children are not able to cope with these emotions, they can progress to nonspecific physical complaints such as headaches and stomach aches, as well as difficulty concentrating and learning in school.

Adolescents are frequently self-conscious about being open with their feelings and emotions. They may withdraw from families or friends as they feel scared, vulnerable and want to avoid being labeled abnormal. Parents should watch for some of the same physical complaints and sleep changes as those noted in school age children. The difficulties teenagers experience with coping can lead to risk taking or even self-destructive behaviors.

Media reports are filled with stories and images of disasters, violence, and tragedy. These exposures can be disturbing to children of all ages and trigger strong emotions – and it is critical for parents to have open and honest discussions with their kids so that they can find ways to cope with their feelings and fears. And as always – consult your pediatrician for additional guidance.

Warning Signs a Child is not coping
1. Changes in sleep patterns – parents should monitor for difficulties with falling asleep, nightmares or other disturbances.
2. Behavior Problems – watch for irritability or regressive behaviors. Children may begin acting more immature or have trouble with separation from parents.
3. Physical complaints – children may complain of vague abdominal pains, headaches or fatigue. They may have changes in appetite.
4. Emotional Issues – sadness, depression, fears or anxiety are all indications that children are not coping well.