How to help children cope with shocking news coverage.

By Claudine Ryan

It’s hard not to be upset by the rolling media coverage of an unfolding tragedy like this week’s mass shooting in Orlando, with its graphic footage and heartbreaking interviews of those directly affected.

And for children, such news can be difficult to understand.

Escaping these big stories can be difficult when they’re everywhere you go — on the television at home, on your car radio, all over your favourite websites and on the front page of the newspaper.

Research shows even adults can be very traumatised by this constant stream of bad news, especially in the wake of disasters or senseless acts of violence.

A study conducted in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings found people exposed to more than six hours of daily media coverage of the tragedy were more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress than those directly affected by the event. One of the study’s co-authors, Professor Roxane Cohen Silver, said the results of the study were quite surprising.

“What was striking was the impact of this media exposure even for people who knew nobody, who weren’t there that day … Media exposure was a stronger predictor of acute stress response than having been there,” she said.

Children may worry the same thing will happen to them

A senior psychologist for disasters with the Australian Psychological Society, Susie Burke, agreed intense media coverage of disasters — such as terrorist attacks, plane crashes, floods, and earthquakes — can trigger a strong emotional response in many people.

But she said young children could be particularly sensitive to such coverage — especially those around pre-school age, who may worry that the same sort of thing is going to happen to them and their family.

“It’s not the toddlers or really young children, who are probably not going to know what they are looking at. It’s the slightly older children, who are aware enough to know what they are seeing … but who aren’t necessarily able to see that it’s a one-off, discrete happening,” Dr Burke said.


Professor Beverley Raphael from the Australian Trauma and Grief Network, based at the Australian National University, said evidence showed excessive exposure to disaster-related news coverage could traumatise some children, and this is why the World Health Organisation recommended children not be shown this type of coverage.

She said there was also evidence to suggest that video footage in particular could be “much more unsettling and can stick in a child’s mind more than the static images in print media or the audio in radio stories”.

But there are ways to help children cope with and process disaster-related news coverage.

1. Do limit viewing time, but don’t try to keep it a secret

While it’s important to protect children from excessive media coverage, Professor Raphael said parents shouldn’t try to shield their children from these types of events when they happen.

“Keeping it a secret is not possible in this day and age. It’s when you try to hide it that it becomes more terrifying or more strange for a child, so it’s really important for parents to explain what’s happened and to comfort the child,” Professor Raphael said.

2. Be with them when they are seeing or reading stories

Dr Burke said if parents explain what is happening to children, they can help them to better understand what is going on and reassure them if they are feeling worried or anxious.

“That way we can be there to hear what misunderstandings they might have and correct those misperceptions, so they have a better understanding of it,” she said.

Professor Raphael said by speaking to children about their feelings, parents could also help their children build emotional literacy.


“You can help them to give names to the feelings they’ve got, and saying they are feeling sad and developing a naming vocabulary for the feelings they’re having … These are valuable conversations to have.”

3. Remind them good things happen too

“All it [the news] does is keep showing you hurt, and not the strengths and courage and good things that people do to help everyone,” Professor Raphael said.

So reminding your child that good things happen in the world can be helpful.

4. Provide comfort and affection

In most cases children are upset, rather than traumatised, and Dr Burke said this was not necessarily a bad thing, as it gave children and their carers an opportunity to have difficult conversations.

“It’s an opportunity for parents to have conversations with children about losing people that you love, or losing things that you love, or how to grieve, and that crying is okay, and talking about how you are feeling is okay,” she said.

5. Distract them with a game or new activity

While shielding your child entirely from coverage of negative news events is not helpful or practical, there does come a time when enough is enough.

Keeping viewing time to a minimum and then moving on to a new activity afterwards helps limit the time a child has to dwell on negative news coverage by refocusing their attention.

So head outdoors together, play a game, or simply watch something else on the television.

For more on helping your child cope with the impact of disaster-related news coverage, visit the Trauma and Grief Network website.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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