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How to talk to kids about our violent world

When discussing current events, consider child’s age, developmental stage
Check your anxiety level before talking to your children about upsetting news. Children can be very perceptive to how their parents are feeling.

The world can be a pretty scary place, even more so when you’re little.

With a seemingly constant stream of tragic events and violence that feels like it’s ramping up almost daily, how can parents best deal with the questions and concerns their kids have about what they see on television and online or hear about from friends and family?

“My first instinct is to encourage the families to talk about it, communicate,” said Anne Maurer, behavioral health consultant at Pediatric Partners of the Southwest. “Often, kids don’t know how to talk about how they’re feeling, and so it’s important for the parent to start that conversation and model age-appropriate emotions and responses to what might be going on so that the child can then use that language to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m feeling scared, or sad or afraid for my safety.’”

Maurer said that it’s important for parents to lead any conversation that does come up, so kids feel it’s OK to talk about what’s bothering them.

And while we can’t completely control our children’s exposure to the news and other media, we can work to ensure that at home, kids aren’t seeing a continuous newsreel of frightening images – and our reactions to them.

Child psychologist Michael Oberschneider, who is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services in Virginia, recommends that parents check their own anxiety levels before talking to kids. Children are a lot more sensitive to the feelings of those around them than we may realize, he said.

Kristin Polens, clinical director at Pediatric Partners, agrees.

“I think that oftentimes children feed off of parents’ anxiety around what’s going on, not only in the home and the community but in the world in general,” Polens said. “I think for parents, it’s really important to limit the amount of media that children are seeing, not having CNN on 24/7 when there’s really violent portrayal of what’s going in the world because that’s a really hard thing for children to assimilate.”

So when big events happen – the terror attack in Nice, France, for example – should parents initiate a conversation, or should they wait for children to bring it up first?

“I think that there are various thoughts,” Polens said. “I think that there’s a critical age toward what’s fear-based and what’s reality, around 7 or 8. I don’t know that you should actually bring things up unless children have a topic that they want to address. I don’t think as parents we would encourage them to broach these difficult topics of discussion because a child doesn’t even know what to ask.”

Age plays an important part when it comes to what kids can understand and what their perception of reality and their place in the world may be.

“Developmentally – I think it’s up to 8 or 9 – the kid is programmed to believe that the world revolves around them. And so if mommy’s crying, that’s about me. If there’s something scary on the news, that’s happening around me. That’s the developmental stage they’re in; they’re the center of the universe,” Maurer said. “And so that’s where that communication is important, to make sure they understand that it isn’t about them.”

But, Polens and Maurer said, some good can come from the bad: For all the fear that terrorist attacks, politics and racial strife can bring, it can also be a good time to help empower your kids.

“For children over the age of 7 or 8, it’s always a great opportunity for learning, for education: What does this mean? How can you get involved? How can you teach your child compassion?” Polens said. “To broaden the conversation from just a scenario into a bigger (discussion). How can we help? What can we do?”

And when all is said and done, it’s important to not live in fear, Oberschneider said.

katie@durangoherald.com. The Washington Post contributed to this story.

What you can say and do

Upsetting life events are often beyond our control, but as parents, we have a duty to protect and inform our children when bad things happen. Here are some tips for parents about how to talk to their children about things beyond our control:

Check your anxiety level before talking to your children about upsetting news. Children can be very perceptive to how their parents are feeling, so make sure you are calm, reassuring and confident if and when you choose to discuss upsetting topics.

Consider your audience. Regardless of the concerning or upsetting information we as parents receive from the media, we must always be mindful of what our children are capable of handling before discussing things. Thus, your child’s age, maturity level and threshold for worry/anxiety are all things to consider before discussing terrorism. Just as you would not discuss tragic natural disasters or death in the same way with 4-, 8- or 16-year-old children because of developmental differences, you would not do the same for the topic of ISIS with your children of varying ages.

Teach your children about upsetting events. By educating your children about natural disasters, tragedies or terrorism, they will understand things better, which in turn will serve to decrease their anxiety. It is important to be clear and accurate with the information you share, and keep your points and message simple. With terrorism for older children, for example, you could discuss the history of particular groups and what started the reactions.

For a younger child, simply introducing the concept of good vs. evil is a way to help the child begin to understand why people sometimes do bad things in the world. Using movie characters or actual events that may have occurred in your child’s life (e.g., a bullying episode) may also prove helpful.

For children 8 years and older, the Newseum in Washington has a wonderfully informative exhibition, “Inside Today’s FBI.” It explores the ways in which the bureau is fighting terrorism and cybercrime. From Sept. 11 to the Boston Marathon bombing and various other crimes and cybercriminals, older children and teens can learn about terrorism through the mixed media and actual artifacts from those tragedies.

Minimize your children’s exposure to the media. Turn off the news! Widespread exposure can cause increased anxiety for our children.

Put an action or emergency plan in place within the home. Having an action plan will help your child to get a sense of control, which in turn should also serve to diminish anxiety.

Do not give in to fear. It is important to keep things in perspective and to not give in to irrational thoughts and feelings.

Michael Oberschneider for The Washington Post.

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