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Managing kids’ media exposure

How to shelter kids from 24/7 coverage of a crisis like Sandy Hook.

By Charyn Pfeuffer - MSN Living Editor Dec 18, 2012 10:02PM

If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve struggled with what to say – or not say – to your children in wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. As an adult, no words can adequately express this profound loss. Trying to find the right words to have a conversation about the incident or calm our little ones is even more difficult.

Photo: Nick Daly/Getty ImagesIt’s only natural that parents want to fiercely protect their children from such a heart-breaking crisis, but in our 24/7 culture of media coverage, it can be tough territory to navigate.

We turned to Mimi Devens, third grade teacher and licensed clinical social worker at Highland Hall Waldorf School in Northridge, Calif. on how to handle kids’ media exposure after an incident like Sandy Hook. Here are her recommendations on what to do, say and avoid. 

Consider a media blackout

Small children should not be exposed to any media over the next few day. “This is a time to 'circle the wagons,' stay close, and protect them from this news,” says Devens. On a weekend it may be difficult to avoid media if families are out and about for holiday events or preparations. “However, it is important to make every effort to have the news and radio turned off,” she says.

Stop talking

Avoid talking about these events in front of the children. “Do not discuss it with them and then instruct them not to talk about it at school,” says Devens. “They will be unable to hold it in; it's unfair to them and would likely exacerbate their distress.”

Turn off the TV

“Be aware that sporting events or other TV programs often take impromptu breaks with news updates,” says Devens. “Children could easily hear more than they can handle in the few seconds before a parent can hit the pause or off button.” The images shown are primarily of the faces of crying and distraught children. “This alone will trigger many questions, and likely, concerns and fears,” she says.

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Keep kids off the internet

“Allowing young children on iPads and computers will also leave them vulnerable to exposure to images and news,” says Devens. “To be exposed to this kind of news may well be devastating and traumatic.”

Focus on the child

Should a child hear about this shooting, Devens recommends limiting details. Take cues from your kid.  “If they ask what happened, you can ask what they've heard rather than launching into an answer,” she says. “You'll then know how much they are aware of and can tailor your answer.”

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Brave thoughts

“Should they ask why this man did this, you can say that sometimes people have an illness in their bodies,” says Devens. We know people who have been sick, right? Well, sometimes people have an illness in their minds that makes them do things that they wouldn't otherwise do. This is very, very rare. “You can assure them that all the adults in their life and at our school work very hard to make sure they are safe,” she says. Tell them they are safe at school. “However, only discuss school if you are sure that they know it happened at a school,” adds Devens.

Keep mindful company

Be sure relatives and friends are aware of the children's presence when they discuss the tragedy. Devens’ children were in kindergarten on 9/11. “We managed to keep that event from them for years,” she says. “They had heard something about 'a building' but that was all.”

Short and sweet

“Should children notice that you are upset or tearful and ask what's wrong, you can explain that you heard a story about a family who was struggling and that it made you sad,” says Devens. “It would be helpful to add that you're very happy that you are all healthy and happy together.” Keep conversations brief and age appropriate.

Ask for help

“Don't hesitate to call a teacher or mental health professional if you feel lost, startled, or worried when faced with challenging questions, and are unsure of how to answer,” says Devens. “Remember, you don't have to answer questions immediately if you feel at a loss.”


How have you handled this difficult conversation with your kids?

Bing: How to talk to children about the Sandy Hook tragedy

Photo: Nick Daly/Getty Images

More from MSN Living:
Mom of mentally ill son asks for help
Whether - and what - to tell your kids about this tragedy
How to help your kids feel safe


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