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Helping children feel safe during tragic news

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Mister Rogers famously advised children in times of distress and troubling news to focus on "the helpers."

He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

Following recent mass shootings, children and adults alike may be experiencing challenging emotions. 

Fred Rogers Productions, the producer of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, reached out to Rocky Mountain PBS to share their PBS Kids for Parents article, Helping Children with Tragic Events in the News

The article explains that even young children are sensitive to how caregivers are feeling, and that children may be impacted when adults are worried by troubling news. But, there are many ways adults can help children feel safe and secure in challenging times. 

Helpful Hints from Fred Rogers Productions

  • Do your best to keep the television off, or at least limit how much your child sees of any news event.
  • Try to keep yourself calm. Your presence can help your child feel more secure.
  • Give your child extra comfort and physical affection, like hugs or snuggling up together with a favorite book. Physical comfort goes a long way towards providing inner security. That closeness can nourish you, too.
  • Try to keep regular routines as normal as possible. Children and adults count on their familiar pattern of everyday life.
  • Plan something that you and your child enjoy doing together, like taking a walk, going on a picnic, having some quiet time, or doing something silly. It can help to know there are simple things in life that can help us feel better, in good times and in bad.
  • Ask children what they think has happened. Even if children don't mention what they've seen or heard in the news, it can help to ask what they think has happened. If parents don't bring up the subject, children can be left with their misinterpretations. You may be really surprised at how much your child has heard from others.
  • Focus attention on the helpers, like the police, firemen, doctors, nurses, paramedics, and volunteers. It's reassuring to know there are many caring people who are doing all they can to help others in this world.
  • Let children know how you're helping. Let your child know if you're making a donation, going to a town meeting, writing a letter or e-mail of support, or taking some other action. It can help children to know that adults take many different active roles and that we don't give in to helplessness in times of worldwide crisis.

Read the full article.

The Children's Hospital Colorado has a similar resource for caregivers to help kids and teens process their emotions and feelings in the aftermath of tragic events. While parents may want to shield their children, the hospital's director of psychology training says it can be beneficial to address the events directly. 

Children's Hospital Colorado: General guidelines to help your child cope

When something unsettling is in the news, kids seek security. In general, parents should consider the following:

  • Increase how and when you’re available to your child, both physically and emotionally. Being accessible can create a safe space for your child to express their emotions.
  • Decrease or set limits on access to media. Young children have trouble processing what they see on the news. And teens, like adults, may at times feel overwhelmed with coverage they see on TV and social media.
  • Display and promote stability. If you’re anxious, your child is likely to be more anxious, too. Talking about the event calmly and keeping your child’s routine as normal as possible helps them feel safe.
  • Be open to your child’s fears. Younger children may use play to communicate and process their fears. Older kids may simply need to talk about their fears, and you should give them plenty of space to do so.
  • Avoid minimizing or jumping to problem solving. Instead, validate your child’s feelings by acknowledging that it’s OK for them to feel whatever they are feeling.
  • Be prepared for questions. It’s OK to not have all the answers but do your best to explain the event in terms your child can understand and assure them that they are safe.

View the full article for tips specific to child age group. 

Following the 2021 King Soopers shooting in Boulder, Rocky Mountain PBS spoke with Dr. Ashley Brock-Baca, a developmental psychologist who works on trauma-responsive care with children and families. 

Her advice echoes the main points from Fred Rogers Productions and Children’s Hospital Colorado.

"Many parents don't want to talk to their children about an event like this or let their children know that they're scared, too,” Brock-Baca said. “But I think that there is some benefit to being authentic with kids and telling them that, ‘you know, I was scared by this too, and it's okay to feel scared’ and accepting that."

“I would say that the impact on the children often depends on how the adults respond,” she said. “So, if the adults are able to convey to children a sense of calm and safety and security, then children will typically have less impact.” 

For children and adults needing help finding their sense of calm, a RMPBS "Kids in the Know" video shares a “Keep Calm Trick” of belly breathing. Laying on your back, you can place a small object on your stomach and watch it rise and fall as you inhale and exhale slowly.

And, a Sesame Street video encourages children to share their feelings with an adult and simply ask for a hug.

Additional Resources

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