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Tackling fear: A child's age should govern what you say in aftermath of unspeakable acts
It's getting harder to shield the younger kids from disturbing images of international disasters, manmade or natural. But a child's age should govern how you address what happened and the steps you take to conquer fear. - photo by Lois M Collins
An always-on news cycle makes it hard to shelter kids from images and talk of disasters around the world, from Tuesday's terror attacks on the airport and subway system in Brussels, Belgium, to last month's earthquake-caused deaths in southern Taiwan.

But it's a parent's job to help kids make sense of the world, especially the frightening news. A child's age should determine how in-depth the conversation is and the steps parents take to help children feel safe, according to experts.

A recent guide by Common Sense Media says kids under age 7 don't need to know and that it's a parent's job to shield young children from images that are disturbing and difficult for anyone to understand but especially youngsters. Since that's easier said than done in a media-soaked world, a parent's focus should be on making sure that children feel safe.

"Try not to minimize or discount their concerns and fears, but reassure them by explaining all the protective measures that exist to keep them safe," writes CSM's senior parenting editor Caroline Knorr. "If the news event happened far away, you can use the distance to reassure kids." She notes that crime and violence may trigger fear and parents should share age-appropriate safety tips, like staying with an adult.

Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen on said that small children who see disturbing images might try to act them out. It's better to keep the images from being seen from the get-go, but "if your young child re-enacts a tragedy, help him play it out until everyone is safe."

After the 2012 murders in a Colorado movie theater, Valley Mental Health's David Koldewyn explained the age-appropriate concept to the Deseret News. Koldewyn, a licensed clinical social worker in Salt Lake City, said if his youngest daughter didn't "somehow hear about the shootings in the movie theater," he wouldn't bring it up. She was 10 at the time. He knew, though, that he couldn't avoid the topic with his older girls.

"Context is everything," the article said. "Koldewyn said when he talks to his oldest daughter, 15, 'We'll talk about relative safety and risks in life. You can't prevent everything but we make efforts to try to be as safe as we can. And the likelihood is very low.'"

Koldewyn noted that instantaneous media can give kids the impression that life is risky. Adults can assume that, too, and respond by not letting kids play outside or walk to school "in case." "'Then you have anxious kids who are afraid that at any moment something will happen and that's not the truth," Koldewyn said.

For kids older than 8, it's important to find out what they know or think they know and correct bad information, still in an age-appropriate way. Parents must listen and to put things into perspective, including how rare these events are, even though they seem to happen fairly often around the world.

"Supervise and manage the flow of information," was the advice from Dr. Steven Richfield on after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, in an article that has been updated several time since. "Most parents are all too familiar with the emotional impact of the violent pictures that flash across the television after tragedies that take a human toll. Therefore, if you decide to allow your child to watch any news broadcasts, sit by their side and periodically ask about their thoughts and feelings."

He said that misinformation is another peril to consider. "As children discuss these events among their friends and peers, they may hear deliberate falsifications or distortions of the truth. Prepare them for these possibilities and encourage them to reveal what they've heard so that you can help them separate fact from fiction."

The National Association of School Psychologists has a long list of do's and don'ts, starting with being calm and reassuring. Parents and other adults should be honest, factual and observant, paying attention to a child's distress. Adults should avoid stereotyping, the group said. They should also recognize that children would like ways to help in situations like terrorism. That, in turn, helps the children cope.

The American Psychological Association said adults need to "keep home a safe place," allow breaks from news of such events and care of themselves, too, so that they can manage their own stress and concerns.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has compiled a great list of resources to help adults and kids cope with disasters of all types, from the death of a loved one to natural disasters and crime.
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