Helping Children Cope with Images of Disaster, Strife and Death

It seems our modern society is inundated with images of trauma, death and destruction. The images are nearly impossible to escape, playing relentlessly on TV and social media outlets. We are constantly exposed to reports of shootings, riots and racial strife; to natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding and wildfires; to global concerns such as missile launches, nuclear weapons testing and threats of deportation; and to local news of drug epidemics and family violence.

As adults, we are – mostly – able to put these images into their proper perspective. We think and worry about them the right amount and set them aside. But for children, the constant churn of negative news isn’t as easy to process. They have limited skills with which to understand and process traumatic events, which puts them at increased risk for developing an unhealthy reaction.

Signs to Watch For

How can we know if exposure to this type of news has had negative psychological impact on our children? Signs to look out for include problems with peer and family relationships; self-esteem issues; changes in grades and school performance; and heightened emotions of fear, anger, guilt, and shame.

Children may experience nightmares and report having dreams about dying; develop beliefs in omens and predictions of future disasters; become pessimistic about the future; become disinterested in activities they once enjoyed; and develop physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches and insomnia. Children may become hypervigilant and be fearful and nervous without reason.

These symptoms may last for a long period of time

Exposure to trauma through the media may also intensify symptoms of other psychological disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, major depression, oppositional defiant disorder, panic disorder, phobias, and separation anxiety disorder.

The Role of Parents

Parents must play an active role in monitoring children’s exposure to negative news. Without parental guidance and reassurance, children may not be able to fully process and understand the images of tragedy and strife to which they may be exposed. Parents can significantly help by having honest and open dialogue with their children, discussing what they have seen and how it may or may not impact them. Parents should consider limiting exposure to trauma-inducing news coverage.

Advice from The Mr. Rogers’ Parenting Book is as good today as when it was first published in 2002, which encourages children to “…look for the helpers. You’ll always find people helping.” This changes the focus from the crisis itself to how people help one another in times of crisis.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution; every child is different, and every situation is unique. No one knows your child better than you. As parents, we must anticipate the questions our children are likely to ask and adapt our responses to his or her needs and development. Appropriately discussing the images they have seen on TV, as well as fears and emotions elicited by these images, can be critical. Remember, children count on parents and caregivers to help them deal with stressors. They rely on you for reassurance in times of uncertainty and strife.

Professional Assistance

If your child exhibits signs and symptoms of an emotional or behavioral issue – there is help. Bluegrass provides services for children, adults and families to live their best life. Bluegrass’ professional staff provide talk therapy through individual and family counseling. For questions, support and more information, call the 24-hour helpline at 1.800.928.8000.