Violent or traumatic news affects all of us. With the 24-hour news cycle pervading all forms of media, it’s increasingly difficult to navigate those tricky conversations with your children.
In a world of apps, social media accounts, rolling news bulletins and online newspapers, news is everywhere. Stories of worldwide violence, conflict, and injustice permeate our lives. If we don’t ‘switch off’ every now and again, news of natural disasters, bombs and escalating tensions across the world can affect us all on a profoundly emotional level.
With the flow of news seemingly never-ending, it’s essential that you learn to expose your children to reality without causing harm and without ‘talking down’ or telling untruths.
Save the Children’s Child Protection Advocate and Senior Advisor Karen Flanagan says: “There is no package or app that will completely protect your children from the internet. They’re going to search online whichever way you look at it – under your roof or not. A parent can’t take control out of their children’s hands.
“The question is not about ‘protecting’ your children from these news stories. It’s about how you frame it. If you can set up the right environment and talk about the traumatic images and content in the news, then ideally you can build on the strengths of your child.”
According to ARACY (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth), the influence of media is likely to be greatest and most enduring on children aged 0 to 8 years.i By establishing a secure home environment with strong family support, the best starting point for talking to young children about the media lies with you.
1. First, consider your own reactions to current events
Taking a common-sense approach to any current event – whether a major catastrophe overseas or a terror attack closer to home – needs both instinct and sound judgement. With clickbait headlines and hourly news bulletins on TV, it’s sometimes hard not to react immediately.
Karen urges parents to first consider their own reactions to world news. “Your children will look to the way you handle the news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will too. Children are very resilient. But that resilience is greatly influenced by the pragmatism and response of the parent. If the adults are OK, the children are OK.”
2. Let your child be the guide
When your child first approaches you, they’ve already picked up the information from another source. “It’s usually from school friends (who can exaggerate) or online. You have to answer them! It’s best you’re as honest as possible,” says Karen.
Look to their stage of development
Age is not necessarily a factor in responding to a natural disaster or similarly devastating event. An intelligent, upbeat 4-year-old may need more detail than an anxious or sensitive 8-year-old. So it’s important to assess your child’s stage of maturity. “Sometimes they won’t ask you anything at all. If you’ve picked up that they’re abnormally quiet then you need to generate the conversation. Use your own instincts to test the waters.”
Respect their maturity and temperament
For some children, an extremely vivid news story can become something that might happen to them. A school fire alarm transforms into the threat of a terrorist attack, with sensitive children wondering: ‘Could that happen to me? Will I be next?’ “For anxious children, just a small amount of information about the news can go a long way. You may have a naturally positive, cheerful child – or a naturally anxious one. So carefully consider your child's temperament.”
3. Explore the issue together
Rather than discussing your own ideas on politics or the environment, first get your child’s thoughts. They’re still developing their own beliefs and ideas, so you may need to clarify some issues. “Acknowledging their questions and exploring issues together is really important,” says Karen.
“If there’s a big storm, for example, you could say: ‘yes there are a lot of hurricanes about at the moment. Why are there so many about and where do they happen in the world?’ A lot of parents don’t know the answers either! It’s a great opportunity to sit down together and find out more answers. Children love information. It’s how you present it that makes a difference to their reaction.”
4. Think about where you leave it
Karen urges parents to leave the conversation on a positive note, but not overly so. “Don’t be flippant or minimise the issue, or it negates their concerns. Think about what they do with that information later. How will they process it or talk about it?
“You must be your child’s honest, reliable source of information. If you turn out to be an unreliable source (or you try to shield them from bad news), they’ll just go elsewhere for information.”
All children have natural resilience
Children’s resilience can be fostered or negated by the people around them. Karen observes that some of the worst things can happen to children, who, depending on their resilience, can cope quite well. “It’s really often up to the responses of the adults around them. It’s important to foster children’s resilience to everyday events (such as a fire alarm at school) as well as something much bigger (such as a death).”
Watch the news with your kids
ARACY’s research suggests that co-viewing programs with children and active mediation (communicating about what is being viewed) is more effective, while restrictive mediation (setting rules or regulations about TV viewing) is less effective.ii When you are always open and available to your children, then if bad things do happen in the world, that door of communication is always open.
Create the right environment
“When children know their parents love them and can protect them, it’s called ‘psychological safety’. A safe household is secure, honest, and knowledgeable,” says Karen. “During a big world event, children may be most concerned about your safety or being separated from you. You need to reassure them that your family is safe.”
When a big disaster happens, it’s hard to ignore. Big global disasters such as war, terrorism and famine dominate our lives on TV and online. Using a common-sense approach is about that open conversation and letting your children know that they are supported through any event.
“You can usually ensure your child’s physical safety, for example by ensuring they wear a bike helmet,” says Karen. “But it’s when they feel safe – truly, psychologically safe – that they can get on with life.”
In Australia, we have a wealth of fantastic, up-to-date materials and data on child health and safety online. ARACY’s publications and the Federal Government Australian Institute of Family Studies publish excellent discussion papers and fact sheets. The Australian Psychological Society and the Australian Childhood Foundation are good starting points for current issues on child safety and the media.
Karen Flanagan AM is Save the Children Australia’s Child Protection Advocate. She is a qualified social worker with 34 years of clinical, managerial, training and research experience in national and international child protection. As a member of Save the Children International - Child Protection Global Theme Steering Group, Karen helps determine child protection policy and practice direction across 120 countries.