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Caring for Your Child When There Is Difficult News

March 11, 2021 | Judith Schteingart

When a difficult news event occurs, more often than not, our instinct is to find the breaking news coverage and keep watching. Pull out our phones. Turn on the television. Flip to the browser on the laptop. As we strive to make sense of what’s happening, it can be easy to forget that our children are watching. For children of all ages, the emotional impact of a news event can linger long after it’s over. So what can you do?  

Turn off the screens, move the newspaper out of sight

The most important thing that you can do is turn off the screen, especially if you have young children. If you have a newspaper with graphic images, move it where your child will not see it. Young children can confuse facts with fantasy and fears. They may believe that what they see happening on the screen will also happen to them. But even older children struggle to make sense of the images they see and the words they hear or read. Repeated images can make the danger feel very close to home. Or seem like multiple events are occurring rather than one event that is being broadcast multiple times. The best way to protect your child is to limit your child’s exposure.

Tell your child what has happened, bearing in mind their developmental stage 

If a difficult news event receives wide coverage, your child is likely to hear about it. It is important that you tell them what has happened. It’s better coming from you than from another child at school who might not have all of the information. Stick to the facts and titrate the amount of information to your child’s maturity and curiosity. Don’t overwhelm your child by volunteering a lot of information. Invite your child to share what they know about the event and to ask you questions. Correct any misinformation. Clarify that it is one event being broadcast multiple times and not multiple events. Be honest and clear. It’s okay to admit when you don’t have an answer to a question; do however let your child know that you will try to find out more information, and then make sure to come back to them when you have more to share.

Ask about and name feelings

Asking about and naming feelings and reactions your child might be having helps your child develop an emotional vocabulary and insight. It helps them become more self-aware. Illuminating and validating your child’s feelings also comforts and reassures them. Don’t push if your child doesn’t want to talk, though. Perhaps they would rather write in a journal or draw a picture instead. Or maybe they just need a hug and reassurance that you are there for them, that they are safe, and that you and their teachers will let them know if there are any important changes. Be sure to invite them to come to you anytime they do want to talk about it. 

Check in with your child over time

Whether or not your child has verbalized or expressed their thoughts and feelings about the event, remember to check in with your child over time. If you give them the opportunity to talk and the event is on their minds, they may be able to delve deeper when they feel less overwhelmed. Additionally, they might have heard new information, or reached a different point in their processing of the event, and would benefit from a follow-up conversation to fully digest and integrate the information.

Model calm

It’s up to you to set the tone. When talking about the event, remain calm and steady so that your child can absorb what you’re saying. If you’re sad or angry, it’s okay to share that.  However, if you react with strong emotion, your child will likely focus on your emotion and not your words. Your strong emotion may provoke anxiety, worry, or fear. If you are experiencing strong emotions, wait and find a time to talk when you can model calmness, or find a calm, trusted adult that can join you to do the talking.

Reassure your child 

Your child needs to know that they are safe. Share what you’re doing to keep them safe. What others are doing to keep them safe. Is it an event that is unlikely to happen again? Are people investigating to learn from the event and prevent it in the future? Tell them. It is helpful for children to learn that difficult things happen in life and we learn from them.   

Consider an action to counteract feelings of helplessness

Especially for older children, but even for younger ones, it can be empowering to think that they can do something to help in the present or act to prevent a future occurrence. Whether it is through prayer, a card, or a petition, mobilizing oneself into action is an important way to counteract feelings of helplessness.

If your child continues to demonstrate distress or is less able to function than before, it would be a good idea to consult with a mental health professional.

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Dr. Judith Schteingart

School Counselor

Dr. Judith Schteingart is a New York City and Hoboken-based psychologist with over 25 years of clinical experience. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at New York University, completing her externship at Bank Street School for Children, and her internship at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center within both the pediatric and adult departments. Dr. Schteingart specializes in working with children from preschool through adolescence, gained over 15 years as a therapist and supervisor at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center’s Therapeutic Nursery, the Karen Horney Clinic, and the Child Development Center of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. Dr. Schteingart is currently in private practice in Hoboken, NJ, where she provides individual play therapy for children; supportive and insight-oriented therapy for adolescents and adults; parent guidance; school consultation; and child psychoeducational and neuropsychological testing. Since 2016, Dr. Schteingart has also served as the counselor at Mustard Seed School, providing psychological understanding and support to the students, staff and families of the MSS community.

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