Even if your child doesn’t sit down and watch news programs or read news articles, chances are that he/she knows and hears about major events such as Hurricane Sandy, and even some minor ones, just from commercials for the news and by word of mouth. Overheard conversations and rumors at school can lead to exaggerated and inaccurate ideas about what’s going on in the world. And natural disasters can spark an excessive fear for family safety. Listen for comments or questions about what’s going on, and begin the conversation there. If your child doesn’t bring up the topic, the best way to find out what your child knows is simply to ask. A simple, “Did you hear about X?” or “Do you know what’s going on with Y?” is a perfect way to spark a conversation.
Younger children (under age 8) have trouble distinguishing make-believe from reality, especially since they see both on TV. Either way, some images can be frightening and seem extremely close to home; it is a wise idea to limit a younger child’s exposure to violence on TV in general. If your child seems afraid, acknowledge their very real fears and reassure them that he/she and the rest of the family are safe. Explain that tragedies like natural disasters or school violence are rare events and that there is very little chance that your hometown will become a battleground. Answer questions honestly, calmly, and clearly, but don’t go into unnecessary detail.
For older children (grades 3 and up), use the following tips to help guide you:
- Watch the News With Your Child: The easiest way to know and monitor what your child is exposed to is to sit down together and watch the news. Find a program that isn’t overly sensational (try local news and weekend shows), and talk about what you see. It doesn’t have to be a formal talk about the issues — in fact, that will probably bore your child. Instead, just let your child comment on the images and stories as they appear. Discussing the news together will also allow you to gauge his/her reactions and decide whether he/she seems overwhelmed or if they are okay and wants to learn more. If the graphic visual nature of television news upsets your child, switch to reading the news together. It’s also a great way to build reading skills and can be done anywhere, anytime.
- Find the Answers Together and Explore More: Your child may have questions you don’t know the answer to. Instead of making something up or simply saying you don’t know, tell your child, “That’s an interesting question. Let’s find the answer together.” Then, when the show is over, open a book or search the Internet to explore and research the answer. While you’re investigating, give your opinions but don’t state them as absolutes, so your child feels comfortable expressing their own feelings, even if they seem to contradict yours.
- Keep Up With the News at School: Your child’s teacher may require the class to follow current events as part of the curriculum, or talk of the news may just be interwoven with peer gossip. Ask your child and your child’s teacher about what is being discussed at school. Invite your child to tell you what schoolmates think and feel about current events. Use the microcosm of school to explain the world at large.
- Keep an Open Ear and Mind: Be open to listening and answering your child’s concerns at all times. You may not be able to engage your child in discussion or he/she may not want to watch the news with you, but your child may ask a question about the news while you’re doing your shopping or are just driving around; a kid’s mind doesn’t always make the most linear connections. Inquire why your child is worried and if it isn’t a convenient time to talk, tell your child that you want to talk more about it later. Set a time so you make sure you remember and your child understands that it’s important to you to talk with him/her. Also respect your child’s wishes if he/she doesn’t want to talk at a certain time, and let your child know they can revisit the discussion later.