Helping your children deal with the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday — and other crises that play out over national news — may just mean turning off, shutting down and going offline for a bit.

Very little about this generation of young children’s near-constant exposure to direct and passive media seems simple, but this much is clear: It is particularly important during national crises to protect kids from images and words that may be too violent, frightening and confusing for them.

Emotional contagiousness and media

Adults’ own regulation is key to safeguarding children as well. In an email sent Friday evening, child development experts at Bing Nursery, Stanford’s famed laboratory preschool, noted:

Children take their emotional cues from parents and other significant adults, so it is important that we control our reactions, and think about who is in earshot when talking to others. Also be aware of what other adults are saying in the presence of children.

This can be a complex proposition for a number of reasons.

Last Friday was my son’s first-grade holiday party, and I was slated to volunteer in his class. As I arrived at school, a few hours after news of the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary broke, our environment — virtual and otherwise — was already saturated with disbelief, shock and grief. Parents arriving at our elementary school, 3,000 miles away from the one where the tragedy occurred, were mostly bewildered — some with eyes red and swollen from crying, others stoic. No one seemed unaffected.

Emotional contagion is one reason why.

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“We can catch other people’s anxiety, depression or stress,” Elaine Hatfield, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and co-author of “Emotional Contagion,” told me in an interview last year.

Stress and anxiety can spread with amazing rapidity. “Faster than we can have a thought,” said Hatfield, “which suggest it’s so primitive, it’s probably going through the brain stem.”

Emotional contagion applies to all emotions, good and bad. In national crises, its range can be extended — and its negative impact amplified — by two dynamics: the nature and reach of media.

First, consider media’s omnipresence and our unprecedented daily access through a rapidly multiplying number of devices.

“This is the first generation of children growing up constantly surrounded by all these smartphones and computers and tablets and whatever else,” said Jennifer Winters, director of Bing Nursery and lecturer in the department of psychology at Stanford University. “This is the first generation of parents for whom this is going to be an issue. And we just don’t know what the long-term effects will be.”

Lessons from the past

Studies done in the wake of tragedies such as the Oklahoma City terrorist attack and the 9/11 tragedy may provide some clues. In those studies, some people who did not experience the actual events of the tragedies were affected by negative stress responses, including post-traumatic stress symptoms. Moreover, those symptoms correlated to broadcast media exposure.

Add to the ubiquity of media, said Winters, “the fact that much of the news is highly sensationalized for ratings.” That is, information is often calibrated to be maximally lurid in order to get noticed.

So not only are we bombarded by increasingly sensationalized information, it is also packing a far greater, more multi-platform punch than ever before in history.

Which bring us back to where we started: Turn it off.

Tips for turning it off

According to Bing School’s child development experts, parents should:

Make every effort to keep children away from the news on TV and radio, block the news feeds on the home computer, and don’t leave a newspaper lying around. Also be aware of screen and paper media (newspapers at stores, news screens) when you are out in public.

In the (quite likely) event that notwithstanding your best efforts, children do learn about the events and need help processing it, Bing experts advise that “it is important for them to know that they themselves are safe and that the adults in their lives are confident in their ability to handle emergency situations of all sorts.”

I spoke to Jane Farish, a retired lecturer in child development at Stanford University and author of “When Disaster Strikes: Helping Young Children Cope,” following Hurricane Sandy last October. Farish told me that children often regain a sense of control by talking about a crisis, and that engaging children in an honest and age-appropriate dialogue is key. Parents should take care to wrap up these types of conversations in a positive way.

In addition, Farish said, physical reassurance — frequent hugs and affection — can provide great comfort to young children in the aftermath of a disaster. Simple declarative validations, such as “I will take care of you” and “we are all safe now,” can also reassure a child and bolster his or her sense of well-being.

Maintaining routines to the extent possible is key and, in some children, some degree of regressive behavior — bedwetting, sucking thumbs, tearful and insistent attachment to parents and caretakers — is normal and to be expected. If these behaviors persist in weeks and months following the crisis, however, parents should seek professional counseling.

Bing School experts recommend the following resources for parents who may need support in the aftermath of violence and tragedy in the news:

Common Sense Media
National Center for Children Exposed to Violence
American Psychological Association’s ACT for Strong Families Program

Amanda Enayati is the technology and stress correspondent for PBS MediaShift as well as CNN Health’s stress columnist. For CNN Health, she writes Seeking Serenity, a column about the quest for well-being and life balance in difficult times. A multi-platform journalist, she has contributed essays, features and opinion pieces on mindfulness, technology, creativity, life balance and food to CNN Living, Salon, Washington Post, Northern California Public Radio and Reader’s Digest, among others. The story of how she tracked down a thief using social media topped Salon’s most-read and most-shared lists for weeks and was named Salon’s “Top 10 in 2010: Our Favorite Salon Stories.” Several of her stories are in use in college textbooks and course material. She is a former child refugee from the Iranian revolution, a recovering attorney and a cancer survivor. She has lived on three continents and in the Bay Area, New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago and Indianapolis. She is currently based out of LA, where she lives with her husband and two young children.

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