by Cynthia Páez-Bowman. Originally published at Safety.com on March 18., 2021.
We’re living in challenging times these days — and our own worries and fears aren’t lost on our children. A recent Safety.com survey reports that “More than three-fourths of parents claim at least one event in the past year has impacted their child(ren)’s sense of safety.”
The survey found that kids were exposed to distressing topics in several ways:
News (from any source e.g. cable, online, etc.): 49%
Social Media: 37%
TV, the internet and other news sources were the top sources causing fear. Fortunately, 90% of parents with children under 18 reported being aware of the digital content their children are consuming.
Parents may be aware of how television — and media in general — can sometimes be a negative influence on a child’s sense of well-being. They may even restrict screen time to limit such exposure. But when it comes to protecting your own kids’ peace of mind, the most important step is talking with them.
How to Start the Conversation Having a conversation with your kids about hot-button issues isn’t easy. It’s hard enough to cope with a pandemic and economic uncertainty as an adult. Trying to understand how your kids relate to what’s going on can be uncomfortable, especially if they’re struggling with “the new normal”.
Start by casually asking your kids what they’ve heard about what’s going on and what their point of view on the situation is. Here are some starter questions parents can ask to get the conversation started:
Has there been news lately that surprised you?
What have you heard about…?
What do you think about these events?
How do you think these things happen?
What do you think people should do about it?
The key to the conversation is active listening to what your children have to say. You know your kids better than anyone else — look for subtle cues that give away their discomfort or confusion on a topic so you can get to the root of what makes them fearful or nervous.
As you listen to your child tell you about what they think is going on, continue to ask more questions, digging deeper into their perception of what they’ve seen or heard. Repeat their responses back to confirm you understand where they’re coming from. For example, if your child talks about people rioting, you can reply, “I can tell the news about people rioting really stuck out to you. How do those events make you feel?”
Keep the dialogue as straightforward and direct as possible. As you explore the topic, ask your kids if they have any questions you may be able to answer, and try to respond calmly and factually about the matter.
Some kids have trouble describing what they’re experiencing because the emotions associated with it are strong. Dr. Leela R. Magavi, M.D., Psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry has recommendations for parents on how they can help kids articulate what they feel.
“Journaling about the situation and brainstorming solutions by drawing or using diagrams allows children to remain goal-directed when [they’re] emotional.” Dr. Leela R. Magavi, M.D. Psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry
“Parents can encourage children to name their emotions to gain clarity and clearly identify the problem or situation,” she says. Because stress develops into physical symptoms, such as a headache or stomach ache, walking through the discomfort as logically as possible may be the best way to resolve it. “Breaking down the emotion into what is experienced mentally versus physically helps children identify when they are mad or sad instead of when their emotions manifest as somatic symptoms such as abdominal pain.”
Navigating the Exposure to Media Just a few years back, the biggest challenge as a parent was limiting how much time on television a kid should spend. Today, exposure to news is everywhere, including websites and social media. If your kids have mobile devices or access to computers, they’re likely seeing some sort of news — and it isn’t always accurate or unbiased.
When media is used thoughtfully, it can enhance one’s understanding of daily life. Unfortunately, Americans were exposed to twice as much unreliable news in 2020 than the previous year. The trouble is, inaccurate or alarmist news can create lasting images in your kids’ psyche.
One of the hardest but most important jobs you have as a parent in these times is to be the “gatekeeper of media” for your kids and protect their identities while they’re online. A virtual private network, or VPN, is a good place to start. VPN services hide your children’s location and web browsing activity from others, providing anonymity. But that’s only part of the picture.
To help families create appropriate boundaries of what their kids are exposed to, the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media created the Family Media Use Plan. You can use this tool to plan out when and where devices are allowed, as well as outline family rules for screen time. Once you’ve outlined how media should be used in your household, redirecting your kids away from it — especially during times when negative news is heightened — is key. Dr. Magavi suggests, “Structure is pivotal and helpful for children to attain a sense of normalcy. Parents could encourage their children to make their own schedules with fun activities such as video chatting with their buddies or completing a puzzle with mom or dad.”
While it’s your job as a parent to set up a system that protects your kids’ sense of safety and privacy, it’s a good idea to teach them how to be proactive about digital security. Children of all ages should be aware of some of the dangers of the internet and understand that not everything they see or read online is true. It’s also vital that they use caution around others — not every profile online is actually who they say they are.
Managing Misinformation Online As mentioned, misinformation and baseless conspiracies are growing in prevalence, creating a confusing picture for kids. Speaking with your kids regularly about their opinions and current events will give you a better feel of what type of information they picked up about it. Giving your kids the tools to question ideas they were exposed to could help them navigate fact from fiction and avoid the anxiety. If your child brings up a topic and references inaccurate information, you can work together to manage the situation. Ask your kids if they believe the information is accurate. Then question the “news” together in the following way:
Who made the post?
Who do they want to view it?
Who benefits from this post and/or who might be harmed by it?
Is another reliable source reporting the same news?
If you repeat the process a few times with your kids, the questions will eventually stick and the kids will learn to discriminate more when exposed to unreliable news. Giving them a few accurate news sources is extremely important, so they can fact-check their own anxieties on a subject, such as:
Websites that end in .gov or .edu
Science sources including National Geographic and Nature
News sources your family approves of
CommonSense.org has a comprehensive list of websites your kids could turn to for safe, unbiased news.
Additional Resources There are other resources available to help you and your family navigate and get through these unprecedented times. Some useful sources are:
The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement
American Academy of Pediatrics: Promoting Adjustment and Helping Children Cope
National Association of School Psychologists Resource Library
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Conclusion Dr. Magavi reminds parents that “there is no such thing as perfect when it comes to parenting.” Having difficult talks with your kids may be uncomfortable, but it comes with many benefits. Conversations on challenging matters are the times when you discover just how empathetic and intelligent your kids are. They may be stressed or worried, but with some love, support and guidance from you, they can navigate their worries and find healthy ways to cope. Best of all, you can both learn something about each other from the conversations and strengthen your bond.
Cynthia Paez Bowman is a finance, real estate and international business journalist with published writings in Bankrate.com, The Simple Dollar and Reviews.com