Helping Children Cope with Images of Trauma

Father and Child

Our modern society can be inundated with images of trauma, death and destruction. The images are nearly impossible to escape, playing on TV and social media outlets. We are constantly exposed to reports of shootings, riots and racial strife; to natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding and wildfires; to global concerns such as war, nuclear weapons testing and threats of deportation; and to local news of drug epidemics and family violence.

As adults, we are – mostly – able to put these images into their proper perspective. But for children, the constant churn of negative news isn’t as easy to process. They have limited skills with which to understand and process traumatic events, which can put them at increased risk for developing an unhealthy reaction.

Watch for These Signs 

How can we know if exposure to this type of news had a negative psychological impact on our children? Signs to look out for include problems with friend and family relationships; self-esteem issues; changes in grades and school performance; and heightened emotions of fear, anger, guilt and shame.

Children may experience nightmares and report having dreams about dying; develop beliefs in omens and predictions of future disasters; become pessimistic about the future; become disinterested in activities they once enjoyed; and develop physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches and difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Children may become hypervigilant and be fearful and nervous without reason.

These symptoms may last for a long period of time

Exposure to trauma through the media may also intensify symptoms of other psychological disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, major depression, oppositional defiant disorder, panic disorder, phobias and separation anxiety disorder.

The Role of Parents

Parents should play an active role in monitoring children’s exposure to negative news. Without parental guidance and reassurance, children may not be able to fully process and understand the images of tragedy and strife to which they are exposed. Parents can significantly help by having an honest and open dialogue with their children, discussing what they have seen and how it may or may not impact them. Parents should consider limiting exposure to trauma-inducing news coverage.

Advice from The Mr. Rogers’ Parenting Book is as good today as when it was first published in 2002, which encourages children to “…look for the helpers. You’ll always find people helping.” This changes the focus from the crisis itself to how people help one another in times of crisis.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution; every child is different, and every situation is unique. No one knows your child better than you. As parents and caregivers, we must anticipate the questions our children are likely to ask and adapt our responses to the child's needs and development. Appropriately discussing the images they have seen on TV, as well as fears and emotions elicited by these images, can be critical. Remember, children count on parents and caregivers to help them deal with stressors. They rely on you for reassurance in times of uncertainty and strife.

Professional Assistance

If your child exhibits signs and symptoms of an emotional or behavioral issue – there is help. New Vista provides services for children, adults and families. New Vista’s professional staff provide therapy, psychiatry, case management and many other services.  For questions, support and more information, call our 24-Hour Helpline at 1.800.928.8000.