"Children relate news events to themselves in personal and practical ways and compare it to what they know. If they have witnessed a thunder storm and then hear about Hurricane Katrina, they might be more fearful during the next (non-catastrophic) storm. If they learn about a local robbery, they may remember the one time you forgot to lock the door to their house.
"Therefore, when something scary or dramatic in the news happens, offer concrete examples to demonstrate what is being done to keep kids safe. Show them how you lock the door, show them the gutters and storm drains in the street, point out where you keep the flashlights if they are afraid the lights will go out, explain what the security guards do at the airport and why the crossing guards will keep them safe going to school. These kinds of examples will stick in their heads and help them feel secure."
Diane Levin, Ph.D.
Professor of Education, Wheelock College. Co-Author, The War Play Dilemma.
Children often interpret war and violence in the news very differently from adults. When young children see or hear about violent events, they may first worry about their own safety. Because they are not able to fully understand things like cause and effect, or even distance, it's hard for them to make distinctions between an immediate threat and one that is far away. Even middle-schoolers will not be able to fully comprehend an event the ways adults do. The following pointers may help you understand the way they view events in the news and provide ideas on how you can help.
A young child's words may not mean the same as your own. The meanings children have for words are always changing with development and experience. For example, for a young child, a term like "far away" might mean a half-hour drive in the car, as opposed to another part of the world. This is particularly important when explaining "far away" events, like a war in Lebanon, or a bombing plot in London.
Children may get confused by specific references in the news. Be prepared for specific questions. "If a 5-year-old said, 'Do all airplanes have bombs?' that's both a factual question and perhaps something she is worried about," says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D. "In response you might say, 'No, just some planes carry bombs, but not the planes our family goes on.'" Children as old as eight or nine often have confusions about the world that lead to misunderstanding of the news. "One child, for instance, hearing about fighting in Iraq, saw the shell of a bullet in his back yard and thought it came from a soldier in the war,” adds teacher Jane Katch, author of Under Deadman’s Skin, Understanding the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play. "It can be helpful to have enough casual conversations about the news that you can become aware of and correct such misconceptions."
Children will develop their own interpretations of the news. Rather than telling a child she is wrong, or correcting her with your own right answer, try asking specific questions. This encourages your child to elaborate on her ideas, make connections and become a critical, independent thinker. "Her ability to think through it herself will also help her contain and diminish anxiety," says Susanna Neumann, Ph.D.