When the innocent ask about Irma, what's the answer: Expert
Wednesday, September 13, 2017, 4:54 PM - In an era of climate change, there are seemingly more weather-related catastrophes splashed across our screens, giving media the fodder and capacity to deliver the message more vividly and more constantly than ever before.
You can’t look away. Extreme weather events rule the news. Millions watched in awe as Hurricane Irma levelled every island in its path before bearing down on southern U.S. for days on end. All this on the heels of historic flooding in Texas by Hurricane Harvey.
No matter how far away these crises may be in the world, some kids may not ingest or understand the menacing images and information overload as well as others.
“Most very young children will not be reassured by the notion that the catastrophe is miles or even oceans away,” Joanne Cantor, PhD and internationally recognized expert on the psychology of media, told The Weather Network.
Frightening events of any kind, including the recent deadly attacks in Barcelona, can leave children feeling scared, confused and insecure. Overexposure can make the world feel like a more dangerous and negative world than it really is.
“Young children usually do not understand distances and geography. Modern media are so realistic and immediate, it seems like everything is happening in your living room, in your neighborhood, or even in your hand as you look at your phone,” Dr. Judith Myers-Walls said.
All this also might not apply only to young children; even adults can get pulled into the saturation as in the age on connectivity there is little unplugging.
“In terms of potential for scariness, (Irma) is the worst weather news story I can remember,” says Cantor, of yourmindonmedia.com. “Irma has had coverage as an impending disaster for days... and with the one-two punch of Harvey followed by Irma, the TV coverage has been nearly nonstop with constant images of destruction.”
Weather catastrophes are among the most difficult for children to handle because they are so visually threatening and continuous, in contrast to, for example violent events, which are often not even caught on camera, or which may be of very short duration, she says. “Surveys show that for very young children (3 to 7 years), weather stories are the most likely of all types of news stores to cause fears, anxieties, and sleep disturbances.”
Parents need to be aware that if the TV is on when these things are being covered, their children are absorbing the fear-evoking images even if they don’t appear to be paying attention, Cantor, author of Mommy I’m Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. Parents should be advised to catch up on the news when young kids aren’t around.
“Nothing is to be gained by immersing a young child in horrific situations that are not happening to them,” adds Cantor. Unnecessary fears can be debilitating and produce long-lasting effects.
According to Dr. Judith Myers-Walls, the better that parents and teachers are coping in a stressful situation, the better the children will cope. If a parent or other important adult is upset or worried, that will transfer to the children either directly or by making the adult’s caregiving actions less effective.
Some parents might want to protect children from media exposure to these events, but in today’s world, that is not easily done, adds Myers-Walls, professor at Purdue University in Indiana and expert on the impact of war and peace on children and families. “Trying to keep children from seeing or hearing anything might mean that they think it is not okay to talk about the situation. They might hear only bits and pieces and get confused.”
So be sure to listen to your child. Find out what they know and what they are thinking. Correct misunderstandings and confusion. Don’t belittle or ignore your child’s fear, but provide your physical presence, attention, and warmth, and if necessary, simplistic, reassuring information. Don’t offer up frightening details. Avoid scary terminology.
Talk about what people are doing to help each other in this situation. Talk about what the children themselves can do to help. Manage fears and sadness related to scary events by taking action that can make the world a better place in some way, says Myers-Walls. The action may not need to be directly related to the scary or frustrating events. “The most important thing is to move out of the victim mentality and become a force for something good in the world.”
Learning how they can help others is a powerful way to teach children that they can help the world to be a loving and caring place.