Helping Children Through Traumatic Media Events

Why are all those people crying Mum?

We’ve all been struggling to cope with the endless stream of horrific world news of late: the plane crashes, terrorist attacks, and the wars that continue. We also have the biggest role in helping our children cope. So what should they know? How do we talk to them about it? Will it just make them afraid?

Since the wars in Iraq in the early 90’s and more so after 9/11 the way we see events in the media has changed. 24 hour tv coverage, live updates on twitter, emergency alerts being sent by sms make it possible for us to get deeply involved.

Kids are not ignorant to what we hear and see and how we respond. They also are far more likely to see or hear this news for themselves through the same channels as us- tv, ipads, newspapers,radio news,  and through friends, and listening to adults talk. We can’t completely shield them, and the question of whether we should is a question for individual families,so knowing what to say, what to do and how to support them is really important.

What to do to help kids cope with the news unfolding around them:

Reduce our immersion in the event

Firstly we need to limit how immersed we get in it. Studies after the Boston marathon terrorist attack showed that adults who watched more than 6 hours of coverage a day in the days after experienced higher anxiety related issues than those directly affected by the event.*

Not that we should pretend to not be affected by things for our kids sakes, but increased exposure to media coverage will affect us more, reducing our coping skills, and increasing the exposure the kids are likely to have.


Limit kids exposure

Changes Psychology screens kids suitable Secondly, should kids be seeing any of the media coverage if we can help it? As said, it’s almost impossible to shield them entirely even if we want to, but, yes we should definitely be limiting their exposure to it

At Changes many of our clients are preschoolers or early primary, and it’s these kids that will be impacted the most.  Australian APS Psychologist Dr Susie Burke- Senior psychologist for disasters says, “ It’s the slightly older children, who are aware enough to know what they are seeing [and] to be disturbed by it, but who aren’t necessarily able to see that it’s a one-off discrete happening,” she says.*

The World Health organisation recommends children not be exposed to rolling media coverage. That is ongoing live news, or any news where they are likely to see the same events, usually traumatic, repeatedly. There is also some evidence that suggest video images of tragedy and “bad” news,rather than radio or pictures, will have a greater impact on children. So reduce their exposure.


Don’t hide it and be there to talk about it

Trying to hide bad news and tragedy from them entirely, and not talking about it if they ask, is likely to create more confusion and fear.

You know your child best so pick a time to discuss it in a “no big deal” kind of way. If you often read the news and tell them something about it, do that. If you talk in the car after hearing news on the radio do that. If there’s no ideal time, you can involve them in a conversation you are having with someone, or if you are upset by events, explain to them that you are and what happened.


Explain simply, answer their questions, build resilience and make them feel safe 

Kids often don’t want or need the background of the issues. Usually they know you are upset, or the people on tv are, and children will  feel afraid, or unsafe.

Kids often don’t want or need the background of the issues. Usually they know you are upset, or the people on tv are, and children will  feel afraid, or unsafe.

  • Explain what has happened in terms they’ll understand trying to keep fairly calm yourself
  • Keep the conversation  similar to others you have with them but providing more emphasis on that your child is safe and protected and being positive when the child says something like “it’s going to be okay” or “that won’t happen here”.
  • Let them know this is not something that will happen to them. Even though we know that that isn’t always the case, children of that age will not understand the difference between it’s unlikely to happen and it will happen to them
  • Answer their questions
  • Talk about their feelings, and yours if they are are ready. Younger children are more likely to be afraid if you are. Talking to children about their feelings in this situation will help them to be able to do more of that when they need to in future
  • Some kids may not want to discuss things at all and won’t be affected. Don’t push them to talk more after you’ve explained simply, if they do seem okay.
  • Remind them that the news doesn’t tell us about all the wonderful things that happen all the time and if they are ready to hear it, or older, that sometimes the news makes things seem worse than they are
  • If they seem very affected, remind them of the good things that sometimes come out of bad things- show them the flowers in Sydney after The Lindt cafe event, or people showing they love each other.
  • Lots of hugs and whatever it normally takes to make your little one to feel safe

If they are older primary, they may well be discussing refugees, religion, and politics in school so will probably have more questions. Its a good time for us as adults to find out more background to events with them in tow if  they want to know more, and seem ready to know more.

Changes Psychology girl globe


Move on

Once you’ve discussed it with the child, move onto an activity with you, or outside, or something very different to what you’ve been discussing. This reminds them everything is continuing as normal, and things are okay as long as their family and friends are around.

For older children, and those who seem more affected by events, it may require doing positive things with them to show that they are not helpless. Flowers on a memorial, a letter or picture for someone they saw upset, helping set up a day at school where they get kids to donate.

Fortunately most kids move on much better than we will. Keep an eye on how you are coping afterwards. Find ways to help yourself cope. As always, your child will learn many of their coping skills from the way you do it.

And if at any point you are worried about your child’s response to media exposure, please don’t hesitate to contact us for a Free Phone Consultation


Sources: *Helping children cope with traumatic media coverage by ClaudineRyan