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Health Matters: How to Talk to Children When the News is Scary

By Chirayu Parikh, DO

With an uptick in reports of violence in communities across the United States and real-time accounts of foreign wars and natural disasters delivered on television and online, it is more and more difficult for parents and caregivers to shield their children from news and images associated with tragic events.

While parents typically know what their children are viewing at home, they may not be aware of the stories and images children are exposed to outside the home. Children may talk to friends about upsetting events or see unsettling images on social media.

Unfortunately, being exposed to stressful news can affect a child’s mental health, causing stress and anxiety.

If your child is having a difficult time coping, talk to your pediatrician. If necessary, they can direct you to an age-appropriate mental health professional.

Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health offers intensive mental health services for children and adolescents who are experiencing emotional and behavioral problems that interfere with functioning at school or home.

Be Prepared to Talk

By being prepared to talk about the news of the day, parents can help children cope and process their thoughts and feelings. Try following these simple tips:

• Present information that is age-appropriate and honest. Be as truthful and accurate as possible when sharing information with your child. Facts matter, but the same words and concepts that are best for a 5 year old will not be as useful with a teenager.

For example, with a younger child, you should keep the information short and simple. Try not to overexplain. Try a statement like: “There was a bad man who tried to hurt people, but it is far away from here. You are safe here.”

For older children, talk to them about what they already know and what they’ve heard from others. Encourage them to share their concerns. You may also wish to try recording age-appropriate material and then watching it with your child, using it as a platform to discuss what they are seeing and feeling.

• Offer hope and suggest ways the conflict can resolve. For example, for a younger child, you might say: “Even though some people got hurt, there are other people doing everything they can to help.”

For older kids, if they are interested, offer ways they can support a specific cause and engage them in action, such as starting a fundraiser or a letter writing campaign.

No matter the age of the child, it is critical that parents and caregivers provide reassurances that are based in truth. It is also vital to acknowledge your children’s feelings and validate their concerns.

In addition, it is important to limit screen time and encourage a variety of other interests, including time outdoors, exercise, pleasure reading, and spending time with friends.

You might also want to consider parental controls and filters on your television and computer to restrict what your children can access.

Pay Attention to Changes

While children should be curious about the world, preoccupation with the news or social media can be problematic. Parents should be mindful of any changes in their children’s personalities and pay special attention to how the news affects them.

Signs your child may need help dealing with scary news include:

• Withdrawing from friends or family.
• Feeling afraid to go to places they used to go.
• Talking continuously about something they saw on the news or social media.
• Having trouble sleeping.
• Experiencing symptoms such as a headache or an upset stomach with no apparent cause.

If your child seems to be overwhelmed by stories and images they have been exposed to, the first step is to contact your pediatrician. They already know your child well and can help you determine if there is cause for concern. They can also recommend a mental health professional, who can provide the guidance and support your child needs.

Take Care of Yourself

As you provide support for your child, you may find it difficult to manage your own anxiety and other feelings related to the news of the day. You may be nervous to take your child to a public place, use mass transit, or send your child to school or daycare.

Here are some suggestions if you are feeling overwhelmed:

• Talk to your primary care doctor and consider a referral to a mental health professional. Remember, you must take care of yourself first before you are able to take care of anyone else.

• Listen to your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, reconsider the activity. Working with a mental health professional can help you differentiate between perceived danger and actual danger.

• Talk to your child’s school and learn about their safety protocols.

• Model the advice you give to your child.

For more information about Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health visit www.princetonhouse.org/children or call 1-888-437-1610, option 1.

Chirayu Parikh, DO, is board certified in child and adolescent psychiatry and associate medical director of the Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health Child and Adolescent Programs. 

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