How Do We Make The World A Less Scary Place For Young Children?

The world is a scary place. If you listen to news reports, it’s positively terrifying.

So imagine the effect it’s having on a group of people, unable to analyze and process information properly? I’m talking about very young children. For them it’s worse than a horror movie. And in the pervasive, digital world we all live in, bad news is impossible to avoid.

The Sandy Creek School massacre in the United States, is a perfect example of what I am talking about. There was no escape. It was on television, radio and in newspapers and magazines. Young children couldn’t help but catch snippets. Either something they heard or just by eavesdropping on adult conversation.

Here’s another. An eight-year-old girl was in the habit of writing notes to her mother while they were cooking dinner with the television news blaring away in the background. One evening, the mother found a note at the bottom of a pile, after her daughter had gone to bed. It read: I’m scared they are going to bomb our place.

Next morning, the mother very gently asked her daughter about the note she had written. The little girl said from what she had seen on the TV news, she thought someone was going to come and bomb the family home. The mother told her daughter these were rare events and a long way away so it was very unlikely they would happen in the neighbourhood where the family lived. But it just goes to show how young children absorb information they hear.They lack the sophistication to distinguish between geographic distances so to them it must be happening in their own backyard.

Two scenarios that clearly invite two questions: How much should kids know about what’s going on in the world? And how much should adults tell them?

Not much according to the Australian Council of Children and Media. They say if a child, even as old as 12, doesn’t know about some horrific event, don’t tell them. They don’t need to know and in any case it will be of no benefit to them.

A Council spokesperson says hearing about a catastrophic event only makes young children feel anxious and unsafe. Children process information in terms of it being either black or white. They can’t understand, appreciate, or see the subtle differences. They don’t see a shooting or a murder or even a natural disaster as a random or rare event even if it happens thousands of kilometers away, on the other side of the world.

That observation has been borne out in work done by Diane Levin, an American Professor of Education. She says children think about news very differently from adults. Instead of it being an abstract event or disaster, children define it to include their own lives. And as a consequence, they interpret what they hear, see or read, in a very personal way. They worry about their own safety. They don’t understand or appreciate the difference between what might be an immediate threat and one that is very remote. Levin recommends that parents step in and make their children feel safe but they must always be careful about how they achieve that objective.

A child will always look to their parents for reassurance. The experts say children are also astute and very good at picking up on parental anxiety. And of course if they see that adults are scared, combined with these events being replayed over and over again on the television news, then it’s hardly a surprise that a child will become fearful.

So how should parents go about giving their children the reassurance they need?

Well, the experts have come up with a plan that goes something like this:

Turn the TV off especially around news time so they aren’t exposed to what is being reported in the media.

Validate and listen to their feelings calmly and give them time to talk without pressuring them.

If the event happened in a country a long way away, then tell them this,while at the same time reassuring them that they are safe.

Try to help them overcome their fears by talking it through with them, based on their age and understanding.

Tell them that scary things happen but there are also lots of people helping to put things right and doing their best to stop disasters from happening again.

It might not solve the problem completely for children but it seems like a good step in the right direction.

I guess what it boils down to is our response as adults. When catastrophes happen they touch our own sense of insecurity and mortality. The best thing to do might be to hold on to the sane and down to earth aspects of daily life because that will ultimately make the world seem like a safer place to children.