| Jun 15, 2016

Talking to young people about scary stuff in the news

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Sometimes, it seems as though the old news adage “if it bleeds, it leads” is taken to horrifying extremes. News coverage of ghastly murders, war and assorted awfulness can splash across our TV screens, social media feeds and more. Once upon a time, news was mostly transmitted by way of print media and half-hour newscasts, but those days are long gone. Today’s young people are exposed to true stories of death and suffering, and research does indicate that it affects them. Symptoms include typical reactions associated with stress, anxiety and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anyone working with young people will have to talk about stories in the news from time to time. Some thoughts to keep in mind:

Young kids (up to the age of seven or so):

  • Try to limit their exposure to intense news coverage, because there’s a good chance they simply won’t be able to rationalize it. The cognitive level at this age makes it very hard to discuss bigger issues related to history, politics, hatred and so on. At the same time images on the news (and they can be pretty graphic nowadays) can be very upsetting.

  • Make sure they feel safe. One of the worst things a small child can experience is the sense they are vulnerable. It can be truly unsettling, not to mention anxiety-inducing. Be alert for signs of stress, and make sure you provide comfort and soothing.

Older kids (aged around 8-12):

  • Match your conversation, and the media he or she is allowed to watch, to the child’s temperament. Some kids can handle more than others, and if you open the floodgates too wide, you could end up causing stress (or worse).

  • Be informed. If you understand the issues in the news, you’ll be better-equipped to discuss them. As a voice of authority, chances are a youngster will give serious weight to your words.

  • Acknowledge feelings. It’s okay to be upset, angry, or confused. Talk about it. Encourage empathy, as long as it doesn’t cause too much stress. Try not to let them watch the news without accompaniment.

Teens

  • Give them some space. Teenagers will have a more sophisticated worldview than younger kids, so they will probably have the tools to absorb and rationalize what they see and hear. Be available to talk and inquire about their feelings.

  • Sometimes it might “hit home” when you least expect it. A teen might personally identify with an event in the news; for example they could share a religion or ethnicity with the victims of a mass shooting. If this happens they will benefit from empathy and understanding, plus reassurance.

It can sometimes seem like a very dark world. When it comes to shielding young people from that darkness, the choice depends on the individual. It’s important to remember, however, that when it comes to stories in the news, the same rule applies as everywhere else: provide comfort and guidance as needed.