Video: Helping kids cope with scary news

updated 8/29/2006 9:56:02 PM ET 2006-08-30T01:56:02

From the upcoming anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to the coverage of recovery in the Gulf areas battered by Katrina, there will be plenty of scary and unsettling images on television in the next couple of weeks.

How do you explain these events to your child in a way that is reassuring?

We asked Barbara Meltz, author of "Put Yourself In Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a parenting columnist for The Boston Globe.

‘The Most’: Are there signs to look for to determine if there's something disturbing your child?
Meltz: Any behavior that is out of character for a child could be a tip-off. For instance, a normally out-going child who is suddenly reserved and withdrawn, or a normally slow-to-warm up child who is suddenly bouncing off walls. Changes in sleep or eating patterns are very typical. Of course, at the beginning of the school-year, these kinds of changes could simply indicate a nervousness about starting a new school year and worries about teacher and classmates.

So if you notice a change, it's helpful to think aloud with your child: "I've noticed you seem to be having a hard time getting to sleep these days. I wonder what's up...." and see what kind of response you get.

‘The Most’: Does limiting TV time help?
Meltz: Yes, Absolutely. So does not having TV on as background noise in the house, and so does monitoring what your children watch, and sitting down with them now and then to watch what they are watching. Because even on many children's programming there are news streamers.

The best way for children under 10 to watch TV is to go to the set to watch a specific program that you have agreed to ahead of time. The TV goes on when the program starts and goes off when the program ends. One of the ways children are exposed to content that is inappropriate (and I'm not just talking news) is because of channel surfing, especially through some of the cable channels.

‘The Most’: Are there different approaches to different ages groups?
Meltz: Yes. Young children primarily are ego-centric thinkers. They always want to know: "What about me? Am I safe?" Between 8 and 10, they still have those thoughts, but a new level of cognition kicks in so they are adding another level to their thinking: What am I going to be in the world?

Our answers, or lack of answers, affects the conclusions children of all ages come to. So with young children who are also very literal, concrete thinkers, when they don't have accurate, age-appropriate information from sources they can trust (you), they put things together in magical kinds of ways: "There are bombs in shampoo bottles."

Older children have more realistic conclusions:  "No way I'm going to grandma's in Iowa at Christmas. Planes aren't safe anymore." The other thing about 8- to 10-year-olds is that their thinking tends to be either black or white.  Planes are either safe or not safe. Once they decide they aren't safe, it's very hard to dissuade them. So the trick is to consider all these subjects and issues as an opportunity to educate your children about the world, and to convey your values.

The best thing you can do is be optimistic, even if that's not the way you feel: "I hope someday we will live in a world where every country is at peace. But in the meantime, our government is doing all it can to keep Americans safe. That's why there are these new safety regulations at airports. They're a little inconvenient sometimes, but it makes me feel good to know airport security is paying so much attention."

‘The Most’: How much of a role should a child's school and teachers play in this discussion?
Meltz: The most important role a teacher or school has is to let parents know what, if anything, gets said in the classroom or school about any of these subjects, for instance through an email system that class parents forward to other parents, or a note the teacher sends.

My guess is that most elementary schools will not do anything in a formal way for either Katrina or 9/11 but teachers need to be sensitive to the issues and allow a conversation or discussion to develop if it surfaces. To squash a conversation or discussion would make it even scarier to children: "This is so scary even our teacher can't talk about it." (Ditto if parents don't talk about it.  Many parents think that by talking about these issues we are frightening our children. In fact, we are giving them coping skills.)

The one exception is if a school or family has/had a direct connection to one of the events, for instance, students from New Orleans attended the school last year and now have gone back home. That's a natural opportunity to talk about how they are doing, the progress of the clean-up, and the power of weather as they prepare for another hurricane season. All in age appropriate ways, of course. To not talk about these things, in that context, would be a mistake.

‘The Most’: Other influences: babysitters, other parents, playmates - how does a parent manage those outside influences?
Meltz: You can tell your baby-sitter, or agree with parents of your child's playmates, not to have the radio news on during carpool, or not to have the TV on as background. But that's just one small piece, which is the whole point: our children live in this world the same way we do.

Thanks to instant, constant and multiple modes of communication, information gets through to them whether we want it to or not, whether we or they are ready for it or not. Which is why it's so important to have a structure in your family so that all things get talked about, and to be conversationally putting topics on the table for them: "Have you heard about Katrina? 9/11?  New safety procedures at airports?" And if they say no, to just say, "Well, if you do and you have any questions, just ask me." And if they say yes, to say, "Tell me what you know."

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