Help young people cope with news coverage of tragic and violent events

Look for age-appropriate ways to support children and youth as they struggle to make sense of traumatic news events.

Events like mass shootings, large-scale airplane accidents and natural disasters are frightening and hard to understand for people of any age, but they can be especially distressing for children. This is especially true when these events are accompanied by round-the-clock media coverage. Significant adults in the lives of young people, such as parents, other family members, teachers and youth group leaders, have a responsibility to pay close attention to how kids may be responding to these kinds of events.

Michigan State University Extension experts share that among the most important things adults can provide for young and older children are opportunities to talk about these traumatic events. As you create and nurture these kinds of conversations, keep the following in mind:

ŸKids’ reactions to violent and tragic events can be strongly influenced by the ways adults react, and this is especially true for young children. If you take time to identify and address your own thoughts and feelings about the situation, you’ll be better prepared to help others.

ŸAs they struggle to make sense of these events, keep in mind that children (especially young children) may have very different perceptions about the situation than adults do. As you listen, allow kids to share their thoughts, feelings and fears without judgment. When needed, help them identify and label their feelings. Be sure to acknowledge the frightening aspects of what happened, and reassure them that they are loved and safe.

In addition to the ways that kids’ developmental ages affect how they make sense of these events, also consider the impacts of their life experiences. Children who have dealt first-hand with violence, trauma or loss will likely bring thoughts and feelings about those experiences into the current situation and may need support in distinguishing between past and present circumstances.

Moving right into conversations about these events won’t work for all kids. Expressive techniques like play, art and music can be more helpful for younger children, as well as for older kids who need different options for expressing their thoughts and feelings.

In today’s 24/7 media-saturated world, it’s not uncommon for kids to witness repeated coverage of tragic news events. Try to reduce or limit their exposure (as well as your own) to these frightening images, and be prepared to follow up with them when they have seen this coverage so they can ask questions and express their fears.

Exposure to traumatic events, whether they’re experienced first-hand or witnessed second-hand, can produce frightening thoughts, painful feelings and extreme behaviors in young people that may require deeper kinds of support. If you have these concerns about your own child, contact a mental health professional. You can get referrals through from your child’s physician, school counselor or social worker, as well as the local Michigan Department of Community Health Mental Health Services Programs.

If you’re worried the reactions and behaviors of a child outside your family (such as one of your child’s friends or a child in their classroom or youth group), follow up with their parent or caregiver to share your concerns. However, if a child has shared information with you that leads you to suspect he or she is experiencing abuse within the family, contact the Michigan Department of Human Services at 855-444-3911. Learn more about these issues, including those who are mandated by law to report these suspicions, at the Michigan Department of Human Services Abuse and Neglect website.

You can learn much more about resources and tools to help children and youth cope with traumatic events through sites like the following:

National Institute of Mental Health – see Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disaster: What Parents Can Do

Safe Start Center – see Healing the Invisible Wounds: Children’s Exposure to Violence: A Guide for Families

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