One of the downsides of living in the information age, is that children are regularly exposed to stories and photos of disasters and other tragic events.
Wars, terrorism, bush fires, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear accidents, plane, train and car crashes, outbreaks of disease – the list seems endless, and the news comes not just from all over the world, but also right here in our own unpredictable state.
Many parents come to see me wondering: ‘’What should I do?’’, “What should I tell my child?’’, and “’Should I prevent my child from watching the news?’’
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), recommends that you provide only basic information to your child, to help them understand what is happening around them. Providing children with unnecessary details may only alarm the child further. We are more and more aware of graphic details in tragedies like how people were killed; it is recommended to avoid sharing those kind of details with young children.
Think Age Appropriate
Always remember to use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child’s age, language and developmental level:
- Infant to toddlers (0 to 2 years old): cannot understand that a trauma/catastrophe has happened, but can recognise that their parents are upset because of the event.
- Children (3 to 5 years old): Can understand the effects of trauma. They may need to have adults around them to help them feel better.
- Children (6 to 10 years old): Can understand the event. May experience different kind of feelings or behave differently. After watching a catastrophic event over and over on TV, some children will start feeling afraid, fearful, scared, confused and anxious. Some children may also become aggressive for no clear reason. Some regressions may also be observed. Many children this age can handle a discussion about a disaster.
- Youth and adolescents (11 to 19 years old): They have a full understanding of the event and can also deny the impact the event is having on them or stay silent. Adolescents develop their own opinion about the event and can have nuanced conversation about it. (Adapted from a SAMHSA resource)
Potential Impacts on Children
Disasters can have psychological impacts on those directly or indirectly affected. For children who have been confronted by disturbing news footage on TV, internet, social media etc, research shows that they can develop:
- Adjustment disorder;
- Panic disorder;
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);
Younger children can also display some other common reactions, such as:
- Change of appetite;
- Separation anxiety;
- Temper tantrums;
- Bed wetting;
- Aggressive behaviour;
- Sleep disorders.
How Long will it Last?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “feelings of anxiety, sadness, confusion and fear are all normal reactions after a disaster but, thanks to parental love and support, most children will bounce back after a period of adjustment. It is typical for a child’s emotional response to trauma to last a few weeks’’.
As a parent, you can be affected by disasters too and may need to look after yourself at this time. You can do this by:
- Talking to friends and family;
- Asking for support from another adult, if you feel too distressed to talk about the event with your child;
- Be calm and reassuring;
- Give yourself time to adjust;
- Remember that you are not “superhuman” so take care of yourself.
Keep in mind that a child’s ability to cope is highly influenced by how their parents deal with the event.
How to Help Your Child deal with Disaster
Talking openly and truthfully to your child is going to help reassure them; help you to assess their level of distress; and allow them to express how they feel and what they worry about.
If you decide to let your child watch the news or if your child asks for it, researchers recommend watching the news with your child in order to debrief, answer questions, reassure and listen. It is important to discuss with your child what they have already heard about the event in order to clear up any misconceptions. Parents should stick to the facts; ask their child what they think, to help them share their feelings.
- Let your child/teen express their emotions.
- Acknowledge and validate their thoughts, feelings and reactions.
- Allow your child or teenager to ask questions about the event.
- Do not pretend that the event did not happen, as children and teenagers may have heard about it at school.
- Model self-care and stay calm (be a positive role model).
- Comfort and reassure – but do not make unrealistic promises as we do not know if the event is going to happen again. As explained by Fassler (7), “remember that children tend to personalise situations. They may worry about their own safety and safety of the immediate family members’’.
- Use words and concepts that your child can understand.
- Do not let your unsupervised child watch news coverage of disasters over and over again.
- Do not let your child watch too much news as “scenes can be disturbing and confusing’’(Fassler).
- Reassure your child of the steps that are being taken to keep them safe.
- Keep adult concerns out of it. Parents saying things such as ‘’we live in a crazy world’’, “we are not safe anywhere anymore’’ may well impact on the child’s anxiety levels.
As Fassler explains, “although parents … may follow the news and the daily events with close scrutiny, many children just want to be children. They’d rather play ball, climb trees…’’
If your child is experiencing difficulties following a tragic event or disaster, feel free to make an appointment with me and we will discuss your concerns.
Meggy Delaunay is a psychologist who primarily works with children, adolescents and young adults. She is a registered Psychologist in Australia, New Zealand and France, and can provide therapy sessions in English and French.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.