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Visions Journal

Parenting Tips for the Age of Disaster Media

Ferma Ravn-Greenway, BSW, MSW, RSW

Reprinted from the Growing Up In a Digital World issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (1), pp. 25-27

Portrait photo of author Ferma Ravn-Greenways

As a play therapist working in Burnaby and Vancouver, I have often witnessed how children process highly publicized tragedies, like shootings, COVID-19 and natural disasters, through their play and conversations.

In 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions began and most children were unable to attend daycare, preschool or elementary school, I observed a trend where my virtual play therapy sessions consisted of many children playing doctor to sick stuffies in make-believe hospitals. Later in 2021 while visiting the gaming platform Roblox with older clients, I saw how exposure to media about mass shootings gave rise to popular minigames that recreated school shootings.

In all of these instances I was and continue to be deeply struck by school-aged children’s awareness of these tragedies, and how kids make sense of them through their conversations and play with others. In an environment where smartphones, tablets, TVs, computers and other screens are easily accessed by children, parents and other caregivers need to know that it is very likely children will hear about and/or watch media coverage of large-scale disasters.

Kids often catch glimpses of the news while their parents are watching or will listen to household members speaking about what they have seen on TV or online. This makes it vital for parents to turn off the TV or other news sites during a publicized disaster when their kids are close by and wait until their kids are in bed or out of the house to discuss worries and concerning details.

Even for parents who are very careful about screen use at home, discussions with peers and friends can give children potentially distressing information about these events. It is my hope that this article will provide readers with an idea of how to help their children process concerning material they see in the media using the three simple strategies that follow.

1. Be present and calm

Research shows that children need present, calm parents and caregivers to process stressful events.1 Being present as a parent is more than just being physically available. It means removing distractions like phones, laptops or other diversions and giving full attention to the child with openness and love. This creates a sense for a child that they matter and provides a space for them to express what they are thinking and feeling. When we are present as parents and pay full attention it is also more likely that we will notice if a child is distressed about material they have seen through the media. It is important to set time aside each day to be fully present with our children, especially when kids are hearing or seeing stories about a large-scale disaster.

2. Reflect children’s feelings

Often as parents we want to tell our child not to feel a certain way or distract them from challenging feelings. For instance, when a child is scared about something, a common adult response is, “Don’t feel scared!” This can create problems for children, as it teaches them that having difficult feelings is not OK or that feelings cannot be handled, either by them alone or by the parent. It can also make children feel unheard.

A great way for parents to support a child when they have been exposed to news about a tragedy is to reflect back the feelings the child expresses. For example, a parent might reflect to a child crying sadly after seeing a video about the war in Ukraine, “I can see how sad you are. It can feel overwhelming to see a video like that.” Reflecting what a child feels helps them to name their feelings, which research shows is a tool to calm big emotions.1 It also helps kids to feel open about expressing their feelings, knowing that their emotions will be accepted by their parents and not brushed aside.

3. Keep information developmentally appropriate

One of the most difficult parts of helping children process disaster-related news they have seen or heard is knowing how much to say to them about the event. For school-aged children it is helpful for parents to discuss these events with their child before they hear about it from friends or on the news, as this can protect kids from believing exaggerations or mistruths about what actually happened.

Events can be shared very simply with younger school-aged children (e.g., “Russia has started a war in the country Ukraine and you might hear friends or adults talking about it. In Canada we are safe. Do you have any questions about this?”). For older school-aged children parents will likely need to talk about more details, but the focus should be on answering questions children have (e.g., “Russia has started a war in the Ukraine and there is concern about civilians, as some cities are being bombed. Do you have any questions about this?”).

Adults should spare kids violent, unnecessary details (e.g., do not ask kids if they have seen pictures of a specific bombing site on the internet). The aim of these conversations with children of any age should be to answer any questions they have and reassure them that they are safe.

In an age when news travels fast and is easily accessible, parents have an important role to play in ensuring kids can process news about large disasters.

About the author

Ferma is a family therapist who works with kids, teens and families doing play therapy, DIR Floortime (a developmental and relational form of therapy for kids and teens), CBT and family systems therapy. She is also a hatha and vinyasa yoga teacher. Her big loves are her husband, seven-year-old son and four-month-old Bernedoodle

Footnotes:
  1. Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child. Random House.

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