Helping kids handle heavy topics

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 More tips on discussing heavy topics

Fire WLimit the news

Chances are good that at some point, your child will overhear about a tragedy when you are chatting with friends or in the car over the radio. You might also be surprised just how often current events are discussed on playgrounds, on bus rides, and through social media, experts say.

That said, no one is recommending you keep CNN on during family dinners.

“If there’s a chance they’ll hear about it, it’s best they hear about it from you, rather than from a place where they might not receive good information,” Martin says.

When her husband’s Nepal trip was extended by the devastating 2015 earthquake, Tsereteli-Stephens had to tell her young children about the international tragedy. But she limited screen time so they wouldn’t be exposed to the disturbing images, she says of her 7- and 8-year-old. She also has an infant.

“They knew he was there to help children. He called when he could, and that was important,” says Tsereteli-Stephens, who also travels internationally for work.

Look at the positive

Fred Rogers, the late PBS television host of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” is often quoted by adults struggling to reassure children about news events: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’"

Experts also recommend talking with children about opportunities to help.

As part of their faith, Mayer says her family looks to support local families who are victims of misfortune. “Sometimes it’s just taking a meal,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a donation.”

Parents are also wise to use current events as a chance to talk about safety measures, experts say.

Although “shelter in place” drills are upsetting to parents, preparation prevents kids from feeling helpless, Martin says.

“It gives a feeling of control if you know what to expect,” she says. “Because the drills are routine, the kids know what to do.”

Tsereteli-Stephens recently found herself sitting with her children in the closet of their Anne Arundel County home during a tornado warning, discussing damage caused by tornadoes.

“We talk about how we can be prepared,” she says. “And we pray.”

When to seek help

There will be times, however, that kids feel news events more acutely. Children who have experienced recent upheaval — such as the death of a grandparent or a move — may also have more trouble processing news, Mosk and other experts agree. And children with anxiety issues may be more sensitive to tragic news events.

If your child repeatedly asks questions about the news, or needs to be reassured often, it could be a sign that he or she is having trouble, experts say.

While it might seem counterintuitive, it’s actually better not to dwell on the topic, Mosk says.

“The more you’re talking to the anxiety, the more it grows the anxiety,” she says. “I tell patients, ‘I’m not going to talk to your worry-self.'”

Mosk and other experts recommend parents defer “worry” discussions to a specific time each day (not at bedtime) for a limited time. That way, they are still addressing the child’s feelings, but not allowing those thoughts to take over, Mosk says. “It’s a way to manage it,” she says.

Developmentally, children tend to be more susceptible to worry at 18 months, 3 years, 6-7 years and again at 12-13 years when they’re exposed to more adult themes, Mosk says.

But experts say behavioral changes, school avoidance, nightmares and disruptions in daily activities are reason to seek professional help.

The most compelling early childhood research studies have shown that the best predictor of how a child will cope with a tragedy — be it an earthquake, bus accident or shooting — is how the parent is coping, says Jennifer Thorpe, a Severna Park-based child psychologist.

“If you model a sensible, practical approach, to the extent you can — if you’re OK — it will help your kids be OK,” she says.

By Laura Barnhardt Cech

Tips for talking about tragic events

If you are struggling with how to discuss a disturbing event with your child, here are five things to keep in mind.

  1. Ask kids what they’ve already heard about an event.
  2. Use their questions to guide the discussion.
  3. Limit media exposure.
  4. Talk about what to do in emergency situations and what safety precautions your family, school and community are already taking.
  5. Don’t discuss disturbing events or topics at bedtime.
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