Helping kids understand the news

What impact does news of war and terrorism have on children? Does seeing the wreckage of downed airliners, missiles flying and gunfire in the streets affect them? What do we tell them? It is unlikely children are actually going to be touched by war or terrorist attacks in New Zealand but our children could become frightened and upset.

Do not assume children will take the same information as adults from a news broadcast. I was in an intermediate school on the morning of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The children had witnessed thousands of lives snuffed out while they ate their breakfast. Those events were so monstrous that even adult brains were wheel-spinning, and so it is understandable that their immature interpretations of the events were bizarre. There was a lot of excitement. ‘We’re going to be in a war!’ One girl ran around the playground asking people (including myself) which country we were from, presumably to sort out friend from foe. Another child’s incomplete geography added to her fear – she mistook ‘Washington’ for ‘Wellington’. As the days wore on, and the TV kept showing the images of destruction over and over, I heard from several parents that their children became worried and anxious, especially at night.

I recommend parents add their grown-up perspective. Childish imagination fills the gaps between real facts. It needs more than just the children sharing their views in a classroom forum, it really needs an adult to overlay the true significance and meaning. Talk to your kids and ask what they are afraid of. Their fears might be wildly amplified beyond real risks. Be honest with them about the safety of where you live. The truth might be very reassuring.

Try to limit their exposure to graphic images and descriptions in the news. When they are watching with you, add your commentary. Teach them that the news loves to show hot-headed people, but that there are cool-headed people as well. After significant events, the news will always screen interviews with people expressing extreme views – often calling for blood and vengeance. Not every view is true, not every dire prediction comes to pass. Teach them to filter and interpret news.

News footage can look very much like the graphics of an exciting movie or video game, but they are real people being killed and hurt. We do not want them to be afraid, but we do not want them to be uncaring, either. It might be a long way away and happening to people unlike us, but they should sense our own sober concern and compassion. If your children experience sleep loss, nightmares, loss of appetite or changes in behaviour that lasts more than two weeks, you should seek professional help from a doctor or counsellor.

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John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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