Each generation has a "where were you when ..." moment in history. For today's young adults, that moment may be 9/11; for Generation X, the space shuttle Challenger disaster; for baby boomers, the assassination of John F. Kennedy; and some still remember when they heard about Japanese forces bombing Pearl Harbor. Clearly, tragic events with global impact are not new, but how we learn about them and the amounts and types of information available about them are very different than they were just 20 years ago. Not surprisingly, this has presented several challenges for today's parents and grandparents.
In the not-too-distant past, most tragedies were filtered through the media and presented with commentary to put things into perspective. Plus, families were there to help each other understand and cope with the emotional impact. Today, we have access to news, comments and even photos and videos of events as they happen - unfiltered and uncensored. A recent study showed that many young adults trust social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, more than traditional media, or even family members, for news and information. News about the recent mass murder in Norway or the tragic stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair flowed by their young eyes alongside the latest tweets from Paris Hilton and Lady GaGa's new music video. So how do we really know if they have registered the significance of what has happened?
There are things you can do to make sure children understand and are properly coping with the events that happen around them.
Start by listening, according to the National Mental Health Information Center. Find out what your child already knows, then you can respond in an age-appropriate way. The aim is not to worry them with all the details, but to protect them from misinformation they may have heard from friends or disturbing images they may have seen on television or the computer.
Encourage children to ask questions. Then answer the questions directly and in simple language. Don't get too technical or complicated. If your child asks questions that you can't answer, tell him so, and then do some research to try and help him sort it out. If he asks, "Why did this have to happen?" don't be afraid to say, "I don't know."
Find out what frightens your child. Encourage your children to talk about fears they may have. A child's biggest worry after a tragedy usually is: "Such an event could happen here and it could happen to me and to the people I love and care about. Will I be safe?" They may worry that someone will harm them at school or that someone will try to hurt you. Provide comfort and assurance that address their specific fears.
Focus on the positive. Reinforce the fact that most people are kind and caring. Remind your child of the heroic actions taken by ordinary people to help victims of tragedy.
Pay attention. Your children's play and drawings may give you a clue of their questions or concerns. Ask them to tell you what is going on in the game or the picture. It's an opportunity to clarify any misconceptions, answer questions and give reassurance.
Follow media reports or online updates privately. Young children in particular are easily traumatized, and seeing or hearing about the horrifying details of a tragedy may be more than they can cope with. Research shows that younger children cannot understand that the televised images they are seeing or hearing may be repeats. Instead, they assume the event they are watching is live and happening again.
Know what they have access to. They may not be watching the news with you, but if they are connected to friends via social networks and the Internet, odds are they know what is going on. Ask them if they've heard about current tragedies from friends or websites, then ask them to tell you what they know in their own words.
Don't dwell on the event. Just use a calm, reassuring tone and matter-of-fact statements that convey safety. Children process information differently than adults. They may tune into only parts of what you say as they try to make sense of this information. They also may repeat questions in an effort to be reassured. Take your child's lead.
Watch what you say and do. Actions do speak louder than what you say, so how you act makes a difference on how your kids act. Children mirror our behavior. If you're upset or worried your child will be, too.
No matter the tragedies your family faces or are brought into your home via newspapers and television, you can help children cope with the anxiety that violence, death and disasters can cause. The most important thing is that your children understand how much you care about them. If you are concerned about your child's reaction to stress or trauma, call your physician or a community mental health center.
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