At times the media coverage of MH17 has been graphic and distressing. So how do you talk to children about traumatic news stories like this, and should you?
It’s hard not to be upset by the rolling media coverage of the MH17 tragedy, with its graphic footage and heartbreaking interviews with those who have so unexpectedly lost people dear to them.
Escaping this media onslaught is difficult when it’s everywhere – newspapers, websites, on the radio and the TV. And when you are seeing images of soft toys, clothing, plane debris and body parts strewn across fields in eastern Ukraine over and over again, the impact can be compounded.
While the media spotlight is currently focused on MH17 and the Gaza conflict, the focus will eventually shift and there will be another tragic story. Research shows some of us can be very traumatised by this constant stream of bad news, especially in the wake of a disaster. One study found people exposed to more than six hours of daily media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing were more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress than those directly affected by the event. One of the study’s co-authors, Professor Roxane Cohen Silver, said at the time: “What was striking was the impact of this media exposure even for people who knew nobody, who weren’t there that day… Media exposure was a stronger predictor of acute stress response than having been there”.
Senior psychologist for disasters with the Australian Psychological Society Dr Susie Burke says intense media coverage of disasters, such as plane crashes, terrorist attacks, floods and earthquakes, can trigger a strong emotional response in many of us.
“This is a really powerfully emotional story because we can relate to it quite easily. Most of us have been on aeroplanes, many of us have been on those aeroplanes – we’ve flown from Amsterdam. People are really empathising with the people who are bereaved and the people who have died,” Burke says.
But Burke says those who are most sensitive to media coverage of disasters are young children, especially those around pre-school age who may worry that the same sort of thing is going to happen to them and their family.
“It’s not the toddlers or really young children, who are probably not going to know what they are looking at. It’s the slightly older children, who are aware enough to know what they are seeing [and] to be disturbed by it, but who aren’t necessarily able to see that it’s a one-off discrete happening,” she says.
Professor Beverley Raphael works with the Australian Trauma and Grief Network based at Australian National University; she says evidence shows excessive exposure to disaster-related news coverage can traumatise some children and this why the World Health Organisation recommends children not be shown this type of coverage.
“We know that this is not good for anyone, but especially for kids, to keep watching it again and again. All it does it keeps showing you hurt and not the strengths and courage and good things that people do to help everyone.”
There’s also some evidence to suggest that television footage, in particular, can be “much more unsettling and can stick in a child’s mind more than the static images in print media or the audio in radio stories”.
You can’t keep it a secret
While it’s important to protect children from excessive media coverage, Raphael says parents shouldn’t try to shield their children from these types of events when they happen.
“Keeping it a secret is not possible in this day and age… It’s when you try to hide it that it becomes more terrifying or more strange for a child, so it’s really important for parents to explain what’s happened and to comfort the child.”
Chances are they will hear or see something be it via the media, by listening to conversations between adults or when they are talking to their mates at school.
Burke says if parents explain what is happening to children they can help them to better understand what is going on and reassure them if they are feeling worried or anxious.
“That way we can be there to hear what misunderstandings they might have and correct those misperceptions so they have a better understanding of it.”
In most cases children are upset, rather than traumatised, and Burke suggests this is not necessarily a bad thing as it gives children and their carers an opportunity to have difficult conversations.
“It’s an opportunity for parents to have conversations with children about losing people that you love, or losing things that you love, or how to grieve, and that crying is OK, and talking about how you are feeling is OK,” she says.
By speaking to children about their feelings, parents can also help their children build emotional literacy.
“You can help them to give names to the feelings that have got and saying they are feeling sad and developing a naming vocabulary for the feelings they’re having… These are valuable conversations to have.”
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 22 July 2014.