Protecting kids from bad news overload

When James Holmes opened fire at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20 in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and wounding 58, it sent shockwaves across the country. In the days since, images of the orange-haired 24-year-old assailant have seemed to be everywhere, from TV news to Yahoo headlines to YouTube clips.

It’s hard to shield kids from this kind of ubiquity.

The COURIER recently caught up with Claremont marriage and family therapist Ruth Aaron to discuss how to deal with kids troubled by this case, in which a night at the movies ended in senseless violence.

Unfortunately, bad news is inevitable. So Ms. Aaron’s advice, which is to minimize and reframe discussions of frightening events, applies to any of the myriad crimes, wars and disasters permeating the media.

“There’s so much exposure to violence through television and the Internet,” she said. “Parents may be watching the news or older siblings may be discussing these matters—there’s no escaping it.”

The media barrage of sad and scary stories is placed on top of pre-existing stress, which Ms. Aaron says seems to have increased among children in recent years.

“Their parents, who may be struggling with economic issues or facing divorce, are stressed. And their teachers are stressed because they have a lot of work-related pressure,” she said.

Since kids spend the majority of their time at school or with their parents, they can pick up adults’ concerns as if by osmosis.

“We underestimate the extent to which children mirror our stress,” Ms. Aaron said.

It’s hard to address media-related stress in children when most adults don’t recognize the way negative news impacts their own psyches, Ms. Aaron suggests.

“We greatly underestimate how what we see and hear affects us,” she noted. “We think, if we have a rationale, it balances or negates the emotional impact.”

As an example, Ms. Aaron cited the tear-jerking animal rescue commercial sponsored by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals starring singer Sarah McLachlan.

“We see those ads a million times, and it’s a worthy cause. But independent of our thought processes, the images of those poor neglected animals stimulate an emotional reaction,” she said.

Stress is a call to action, Ms. Aaron noted.

“When we see those mistreated animals, we want to defend them, to fend off the aggressor.”

Viewers can respond logically to the ads by sending money to the cause, or by volunteering at their local animal shelter at a later date, but it doesn’t address the innate urge to go to the animals’ rescue. Children may feel especially powerless.

“What happens to all the built-up stress? We store it,” Ms. Aaron said. “It adds and adds and adds until it becomes symptomatic.”

The symptoms of stress occasioned by media exposure, like irritability, fatigue and impatience, may be difficult to recognize. Many of us chalk it up to simply having a hard day. But it is a very real phenomenon, Ms. Aaron emphasizes.

She suggests getting proactive when disturbing images and narratives are looping on the television, acting to “protect and redirect.”

Parents can change the channel to cartoons or to a family movie. If an explanation is required, Ms. Aaron offers a sample script: “That’s just a story on the news about something bad. We prefer to focus on good things.”

If kids have already been exposed to worrisome news—such as footage of Mr. Holmes at his arraignment—and they have questions, Ms. Aaron suggests parents take a minimal approach, answering in general terms.

“You can just say, ‘He’s a criminal and he’s committed crimes, and we’re not really interested in crime,’” she said.

Ms. Aaron advises that parents answer only the questions raised by the child, instead of volunteering information. It’s a departure from the parenting approach advocated by pop psychology, where openness and communication is stressed. Parents often consider news-making events as appropriate segues into broader topics like violence and policies such as gun control.

“If your child sees Mr. Holmes on television and says, ‘My friend said that man shot people,’ you might ask ‘Is that worrying you?’” Ms. Aaron said. “We can elicit what they’re thinking, which may be, ‘I’m wondering if we go to the movie theater is someone going to shoot us?’”

Ms. Aaron also recommends parents avoid explaining incidents like the Colorado shooting in terms of the fact that the perpetrator is sick or mentally ill. It is an explanation that does little to assuage children’s fears, and instead may serve to stigmatize mental illness.

“We don’t want kids to find peers at school who are getting special education or who have emotional issues and ostracize or bully or fear them,” she said.

After redirection, Ms. Aaron said, the next step is to “reassure and empower kids.” Parents can do this by remaining calm, and giving kids a statistical reality check.

“A parent needs to present confidence and calm. If the parent is upset and gasping, the child will feel that way,” she noted. “It’s like when a toddler skins his knee and looks to the parent to see how horrified he should be.”

If a child who has learned of a horrific event asks outright, ‘Could this happen to me?’ Ms. Aaron says it’s important to give them what they are craving: reassurance.  

“Say ‘That’s not going to happen,’” she suggests. “Someone might say, ‘It could happen. Aren’t you misleading your child?’ But statistically, the chances are very remote.”

As for empowerment, Ms. Aaron suggests reframing bad news, whether in the form of a widely-reported killing spree or a natural disaster, as an emergency.

“It’s a different spin. Instead of being out of your control, an emergency is something you can all be equipped for,” she said.

Whether children are worried about events at home or in a far away place, the most natural way for them to process their emotions is through unstructured play, Ms. Aaron said.

If a child still seems to be having trouble dealing with stress, it may be time to seek counseling. Symptoms an overstressed child may display include unusual fearfulness, timidity or irritability, having bad dreams, and misbehaving at school or at home. Effective therapy for young children often includes facilitated play or art therapy, providing ways for children to process an experience without having to use words.

The best form of therapy, however, is limiting exposure to media coverage of traumatic events, Ms. Aaron said. Looking at beautiful things, participating in enjoyable family activities and even just watching a comedy can help nurture a more positive worldview.

“Laughter is a natural counterbalance to stress,” Ms. Aaron said.

—Sarah Torribio



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