Welcome back our guest blogger Marly Hinestroza, as she discusses about tragic media headlines, the effects on children, and how you as a parent can help!
On 01/13/18, at 8:00 am HST, I was trying to entertain eight 9 year old girls who had just woken up from a birthday-sleepover party for my daughter, when I received an alarm on my phone that read “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Many people have shared what it was like to be in Hawaii during this “mistake” and I echo many of the sentiments of fear, anger, confusion and sadness so I won’t go into that (Coping with Hawaii’s Ballistic Missile False Alarm). Luckily, my fight or flight instinct kicked in and fight prevailed so I managed to get my daughter, her friends, my 18 month old and 2 year old lab into the laundry room with as many provisions as I had ready for hurricane season, because who prepares for incoming missiles? Right…
“If It Bleeds, It Leads”
Barely a month later, on 2/14/18 as I’m ordering lunch with a friend, the headline start to roll across the screen – “Mass shooting in Florida High School.” So my heart drops and I think “what must those kids be going through? Those parents? What if it was my kids? Why is this happening?!”
There is so much going on in the world and it is close to impossible to shut all the “noise” out and keep it away from our children. Whether they are on social media or not, news spread like wildfire and children are talking about it. News stories are coming up in sessions with school age children and teens who have “heard that” or “read this on Facebook.” News stories are also coming up in sessions with parents who are struggling with how to talk to their children about how bleak the world seems to be some days.
Shortly after the shooting my daughter’s elementary school sent out a letter in an attempt to reassure parents that they have drills to prepare for the unfortunate. I asked my nine year old if she’s done the drills, tried to gage if she understands why and tried to ensure she knows what to do even though just the thought of it makes me sick. Then she told me something that chilled me; she told me that a teacher asked her if her light up shoes (which she loves and wears almost daily) have an on/off button and that when they have a drill she has to turn them off because she won’t want the bad guy to see her… Later on I saw a viral post on FB about light up shoes and I cried the tears I didn’t allow myself to shed when talking to her.
How to Talk To Your Child About Tragedy
At this point I realized that I myself don’t quite feel prepared to talk to my children about the tragedies in the world, which some days seems to be daily occurrences. I don’t want to address any of it with my nine year old, and does my 18 month old even need anything from me in the days following a tragedy that is being covered on every media channel, social media app and seemingly everyone around me? The answer is YES. Yes, no matter the age our children have needs that we must meet during times of national and international tragedies. There are many articles on this topic and at times the sheer amount of information available can be overwhelming, however, there are some common themes when talking to children about tragedies in the world:
Listen, allow them to express themselves and reinforce that they are safe.
Start where the child is. From infants to adolescents our children speak to us both with their words and with their actions so no matter their age it is important that we listen to them.
-Infants and toddlers may be responding to you and how you are coping with the stress, listen to the cues they are giving you.
- Sleep regressions
- Change in appetite
- Excessive crying or screaming
- Increased irritability or sadness
- Shows anxiety/startles easily
If you notice these signs in the days following a national or international tragedy that is being broadcasted widely take a moment to assess how you are responding to it. Limit your exposure to it as much as possible, especially when interacting with your infant or toddler and take care of yourself. The NCTSN provides a comprehensive list of signs to look out for.
School age children are also looking at you and how you are responding to the events but they are likely to also be receiving information from other such as teachers, peers, older siblings or even TV and social media. Listen to what your child knows already and correct misinformation as well as provide facts in simple, clear and concise age appropriate terms. If they have an explanation that implies they understand something has happened, that it is over and those able to help have done so (police, EMTs etc.) and they are safe either because it happened in a place far away or because they have been reassured their school and caregivers will protect them then don’t take away their sense of safety. This is the explanation they need to feel safe and although we know that unfortunately tragedies can happen nearly anywhere and at any time, we don’t want to burden our children with that knowledge.
- Regressive behaviors (i.e. thumb sucking, bedwetting)
- Difficulty focusing
- Excessive temper, irritable, sadness, anxious
- Difficulty sleeping
- Frequent headaches or stomach aches
-Adolescents may be even more exposed to tragic news as it is more common for them to be on social media, however they probably still have many questions and misinformation about what has happened. An adolescent may not know how far away or close an event is to them, they may wonder why it has happened and what is being done about it and have misconceptions about what can actually be done. As with younger children, gently correct misinformation by offering facts in simple and clear language. Remember that they are getting information from many sources and whatever gaps they have are being filled in by their imagination and what they are piecing together. It is also important to listen to them in whatever way they choose to present the information, whether they tell you what they know and how they are feeling or using friends as examples. Don’t remove the mask by saying “I bet you’re feeling that way too.” Or “Sarah doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” The American Academy of Pediatrics has a website called Healthy Children where you can find articles including phrases to say and what not to say for natural or man-made tragedies and loss.
- Difficulty focusing
- Increased irritability and anger outburst
- Withdrawing from others and activities they enjoyed
- Change in appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
No matter the age, be open to having the conversation – it is better that they get the information from you than from others. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in CT I listened to an interview with Dr. Benjamin Shain, MD and he was asked by the interviewer when to talk to children about these tragedies, are there times to avoid such as before bed? His response was no, if children are talking about it, it is best to address it then and provide clear and concise answers. Ultimately, no matter the age, they are looking at you for how to navigate these very overwhelming situations and they need to feel safe and reassured.
When in doubt, my new internal mantra has been “I don’t got all the answers, so tell me who does. All I really know is that we really need love!” – Landon McNamara (great song with Island vibes and a powerful message). Yes there are horrific things going on and somedays it feels very overwhelming but one thing we can do is GIVE LOVE. So no, it won’t be easy to have these conversations with our children and as much as we wish we didn’t have to, we need to. We need to listen to them, allow them to express themselves and help them feel safe.
Marly A. Hinestroza-Gaviria, LCSW
Ms. Hinestroza-Gaviria is a Resilience Trainer for FOCUS Hawaii working with military families and couples. Marly has worked as a certified Multidimensional Family Therapist with adolescents and their families dealing with adolescent high-risk behaviors and/or substance abuse. She has experience working with children from infancy to adolescence and their families providing assessments, individual and family therapeutic interventions, service coordination and crisis intervention. Marly earned her Master of Social Work degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey.