In case you needed one more reason to limit your kid’s media exposure, here’s some new science to freak you out. I recently read a disturbing article on the “impact of distressing media imagery on children” in the Journal of Pediatrics. News channels/outlets (even the weather channel) are constantly reporting on real tragedies that are happening all over. When exposed to these stories (not even the events themselves), some kids are developing serious psychological problems (including worry, anxiety, and full blown PTSD). In light of recent events with rioting in the United States and a worldwide pandemic, it seems particularly timely to discuss how to protect our children from these effects.
Prevention, Prevention, Prevention.
I hear the phrase, “You shouldn’t shield your kids from everything.” While this may be true in some cases, the scientific evidence states there is no age in which you should stop protecting your child from violence. IT’S ALL BAD. Shield them from the violent images of the news (and such) as much as you possibly can. If I, as an adult, have a hard time mentally making sense and coming to grips with the tragedies of riots, pandemics, school shootings, earthquakes decimating cities, acts of terrorism, etc., how is a child to mentally handle it? A child is not equipped to do that. I saw a kiddo this week in clinic who was mentally plagued with fear that she was going to die of cancer after having seen one of those “cure the kids” commercials. I wanted to cry for her. How tragic that her media exposure caused that kind of worry unnecessarily.
No images. Just Talk.
- Turn off the news/screens with images covering the events. News should not be on the background where kids are (sorry, you CNN addicts). If you’re watching and your kid walks into the room, turn it off. One momentary flash on a screen of a school shooting and a child may develop PTSD and be unable to overcome the fear of going to school.
- Ignorance is bliss (in this case). If you can protect your child from the knowledge of the events altogether, even better. This is particularly true the younger the child (think elementary school age or younger). Yesterday, I went on a walk with my two year-old around our neighborhood. I smiled as she pointed and yelled “ninja!” to someone who rode by on a bike with a mask. I realized that despite my everyday work experience being dominated by masks and PPE, I had effectively shielded her from the worry of Coronavirus and the pandemic. It was the first time she had left the shielded security of our home and seen someone in a mask.
- If the news event is near to home or hearing about it will be inevitable for the child (e.g., teens with data connected friends), carefully explain what has happened. If the child hears about it in vague terms (with your artfully phrased spin), when he/she hears about it from other people, he/she won’t be as bothered by it. How you respond/tell your child about it will create a certain amount of resilience to the situation. It may help to start the conversation by asking if your child has heard about the particular news event first. For example, “There have been riots happening all over the nation. Have you heard about it? Would you like to discuss it?” You may choose to emphasize the difference between a protest and a riot. It would be a great time to teach values surrounding equality and not discriminating based on race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. If it’s a school shooting, you may need to emphasize that the shooter was not mentally well or was stopped/ caught or can’t hurt anyone else. If it’s a natural disaster, you may need to stress that a particular weather pattern doesn’t happen where you live (e.g., tsunamis or hurricanes). While it may seem obvious to you, your child may not know that.
- Stress safety. As much as possible, stress how your child is protected from a similar situation.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events (e.g., wars, crimes, natural disasters). The experience will cause the affected person to have intense and intrusive memories that causes the person to relive the experience. These memories (sometimes in the form of flashbacks or nightmares) are so intense that the person’s life is affected.
What to do if you suspect PTSD?
- Act Quickly. Time is of the essence. Get professional help immediately. The longer the child experiences these memories, the more entrenched they become.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is done under the guidance of a professional (usually a psychologist).
- Create a safe environment now. Whatever the reason for the drama, the child needs a safe environment now.
- Reassure, reassure, reassure. A traumatized child will need countless reassurances.
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