Guidelines for helping children deal with frightening events and media coverage

The extensive media coverage of violence, conflict, terror, etc in the international community, and here in Australia, means that many children will be aware of world events and the possibility of violence close to home.

Hearing about these events can be very disturbing and distressing for children. 

Children often cannot easily understand time and place. They may experience events as concrete and local and profoundly personal and emotional, and wonder if harm would happen to them.

They can easily think that everyone and everything, everywhere, is coming apart, particularly if the way adults are behaving gives them that impression.

Children need reassurance that they are safe and secure, as well as help in making sense of complex events, at a level that they can understand.

Signs that children are feeling distressed

Children are not always able to express complex feelings in the same direct way that adults do, and therefore might not show the same reactions to stress as adults. It is therefore very important to look out for changes in children’s behaviour that suggest they are unsettled or distressed, such as:

  • Changes in their play, drawing, dreams or spontaneous conversations
  • Regressive behaviour - children behaving younger than they normally do
  • Nightmares
  • Anxiety about sleeping alone
  • Trouble getting to sleep
  • Irritability or anger
  • Tantrums, increased defiance
  • Fussy eating
  • Withdrawing
  • Wanting to stay close to a parent, becoming more clingy
  • Decreased concentration or attention span
  • Feelings of anxiety, fears, and worries about safety of self and others
  • Increased aggression, angry outbursts,
  • Questions about death and dying
  • Increased somatic complaints (sore tummy, headaches

What adults can do to help

Activities and suggestions vary depending on the age of the child.   

Monitor media exposure

Children can become distressed and fearful after watching repeated images of frightening events on the television, as well as other forms of media, and can come to believe that the world is a scary place. Many children retain longer-term recurrent disturbing memories from viewing violence.  

Limit the amount of time children spend watching media coverage of tragedy and terror.

If children are viewing media stories of distressing events, it is best to watch with them.  They need your adult presence and perspective.  Being able to talk about the material with a caring and reassuring adult can greatly reduce these reactions.

Listen to understand how children are feeling and thinking

Encourage (but don’t force) children to talk about their thoughts and feelings about the events.

Let them know that it is normal to think and feel that way. 

Expect that children might ask the same questions over and over as they attempt to make sense of events. 

Remain patient and provide truthful but simple and thoughtful explanations that will help them to develop a realistic understanding of the event. 

Correct any misperceptions they might have about the events and likely risks.

Provide children with opportunities to express their feelings

Sometimes children can better express their feelings through play than through words, so make time to play with them.

Reassure children

Children need comfort, reassurance and support, and to know that they are safe and are being looked after and that nothing bad will happen to them personally.  

Let children know that there are people all over the place working hard to make sure that people stay safe, and that these people are very good at their job.

Do calming activities with children who are distressed.

Reassure them that you are watching out for them.

Try to spend more time with your children and provide them with plenty of affection through cuddles and hugs.

Let them be more dependent on you for a while.

Maintain good routines – predictable family activity is very reassuring for children

Be aware of how you talk in the presence of children

Shield children from in-depth adult discussion about these events, especially if they cannot join in at their own age or stage of development. Children can distort what they hear or see especially when the information is received through indirect communication (for example, overheard adult conversations about worrying things).

Pay attention to your own reactions

Children may respond to the anxieties felt and expressed by the people around them.  They often see and hear far more than adults are aware of, and they will take their cues for how to respond from you.

Talk privately with trusted adults if you are needing to air your own feelings or explore your own reactions to the events. 

Share your own feelings, but show that you are in control of them.

Be alert to stereotypes

Avoid stereotyping, narrow analyses of the problem, disaster or crisis, and blaming of whole groups for the actions of few. 

Help children to separate angry thoughts and feelings about specific people who behave in cruel ways from the larger cultural or religious group to which those people may belong.

Avoid black and white answers.

Leave children with a feeling of security but also hope

Help children to see that their world is basically a safe place, people are usually good, and that life is worth living.

Protecting children from violence in movies, television shows, and computer games

Parents are increasingly aware of the harmful effects of violence in movies, television shows and computer games. Thousands of studies have investigated the effects of media violence on children, and many review papers have been written. Research has shown that children who see a lot of violence on screens are more likely to:

  • behave aggressively;
  • have aggressive thoughts and unfriendly feelings; and
  • not care about what happens to people who are victims of violence.

Though differing in focus, these conclusions are endorsed universally by many review papers (APS, 2000). A useful strategy for parents of children of all ages is to limit access, then monitor and supervise at times when children are watching television or using computer games.

It is recommended that parents:

  • Take responsibility for controlling their children’s viewing/playing habits;
  • Know what their children are watching;
  • Make rules about the programs children watch;
  • Seek out appropriate programs. Classifications can be some help in selecting programs and, if possible, watch programs beforehand;
  • Help children find attractive, exciting and non-violent alternative activities to watching television.Include activities that children can either do alone, with siblings, or with adults, that suit their age (such as Lego or other construction games, bike riding, dressing up and other make-believe games, ball games, listening to story audio tapes, board games);
  • Teach children how to limit their viewing and to switch the television off after a while;
  • Make sure that children understand that viewing violent or sad things can make them feel angry or sad too;
  • Use a filter or a screening program on your home computer to block entry to certain websites; and
  • Always check video/computer games before letting children play with them.

Share and discuss the programs children watch

When your children are watching television or movies, attempt to watch with them as much as possible, and encourage them to evaluate critically what they are watching. Useful questions to ask are listed below. Obviously, simpler language is necessary for younger children, but many of the questions about the consequences of the violent behaviour for the perpetrator and the victim, and alternatives to violent behaviour, can also be helpful for children as young as four or five.

  • Is the violence realistic?
  • What happens to the victim?
  • What are the consequences of behaving violently?
  • What sorts of consequences happen in real life?
  • Do people really behave like this (or is this just make believe for television/movies)?
  • Do your friends behave like this?
  • How else could the characters solve their problems?
  • Are there problems with behaving in this way?