The recent Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport shooting is a reminder that the sheer volume of media exposure of mass killings, terrorism and other horrible events can have a profound effect on kids many miles from the scene.
Even if your kids don’t say anything after such a tragedy, it’s good to ask them about their understanding of events and their fears, said Dr. Laura Markley, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Akron Children’s Hospital’s Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology.
Kids can have a distorted sense of danger because of what they see in the media. Find out what they know, fill in knowledge gaps and help them keep it in perspective, Dr. Markley said.
“You want to be accurate and reassuring without being over-informative and graphic,” she said.
How you communicate, of course, depends on the age of your child. Teens may want to talk about the violence and voice their opinions. Younger kids might have questions about their safety and need reassurances.
“Acknowledge that images and headlines can be disturbing, but it doesn’t mean you’re in danger,” Dr. Markley said. “I encourage parents to point out there are many more good people who don’t do bad things than people who hurt others.”
Kids should not watch repeated news coverage, and younger children should be shielded from all TV news coverage if possible.
“When the Twin Towers were hit, everyone turned on their TVs, and didn’t think about the repercussions of watching those graphic scenes,” Dr. Markley said.
Following 9/11, mental health experts found that children across the country had ongoing fears and anxieties from seeing the horrific images on TV.
In a 2016 article published by Duke University, clinical psychologist Robin Gurwitch said, “Many children were too young to understand that what they were seeing was the same footage being repeated. They thought more and more towers were falling.”
Dr. Markley said it’s okay to acknowledge the truth when children have become aware that people died in a tragedy. However, instead of providing excess details, focus on pointing out that safety forces were there to protect others, and reassure children that schools, police and others work hard to keep your community and your family safe.
“It’s okay to say this is unlikely to happen to you, but that if something did happen where we live, there are people here protecting you,” Dr. Markley said.