Parents can be ready for bad news

  • Article by: Kate Parry
  • Star Tribune
  • June 12, 2006 - 2:31 PM

Parents collapse in grief as their children are unearthed from the rubble of an earthquake in Pakistan. A teen is arrested in the slaying of his parents. Horrific revelations surface about Hmong gangs raping Hmong girls.

There are times when the Star Tribune brings very unpleasant news and images into your home. Editors and reporters know those stories and photos will be disturbing. But there's a sense of obligation to tell our community when problems and tragedy need to be addressed.

Last week, many readers contacted the Star Tribune to say that, hard as it was to read, the series "Shamed into silence" was the kind of tough reporting they want in their newspaper.

"Before this article, I had no idea that this was a problem in the Hmong community. ... Thank you for caring enough to move these girls beyond just a statistic," said Jer Yang, an English major at the University of Minnesota who lives in Minneapolis.

"I had no idea these issues were still going on in our community and thought that they had faded away years ago because no one talks about them, but I guess I was wrong. ... I am now better prepared to try and protect my own children against such evil," said Shoua Lee, an operation consultant from Minneapolis.

But despite an editor's note warning the content was graphic and disturbing, some readers objected that the descriptions of violent sexual attacks were too graphic and they didn't want their teens to read them. After any disturbing news, I hear from readers who worry they should hide the newspaper from their children.

"The details with which the rapes were reported made me sick. ... I have a 13-year-old daughter very interested in what's going on in the wider world. I don't think she is ready to read your paper either," said Patricia Walsh, who lives in Minneapolis and is a parent educator at family centers in Eden Prairie and St. Louis Park.

I'm a parent and I've been there, trying to figure out how to raise well-informed citizens full of that Minnesota zeal for helping people without handing my kids more than they can handle emotionally in graphic words and images.

It's tough to find just the right balance. Since Sept. 11, 2001, some helpful guides have popped up online -- I've included links to a few in the box with this column. I also asked clinical psychologist Sharon Berry, director of training for psychological services at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, to help me provide practical advice parents can use to help children deal with grim news:

• Don't wait until disturbing news happens to read the paper together and talk about the news: "Start when there's nothing emotionally laden in the news," Berry said. "We have to educate them how to use the news and interpret the news."

• If a big story breaks, don't assume your child or teen hasn't already heard the news: That young people aren't talking about it doesn't mean they somehow missed it. Kids might be hearing inaccurate accounts. Ask what they know, and help straighten out any misinformation.

• Think about how much your child can handle: "What one 15-year-old can handle, another can't. There are anxious children and teens who become very anxious because they hear about a school shooting -- even if it's in another state. It's about them when it isn't really about them," Berry said. Help them regain perspective. For some, limiting exposure to the news could be helpful. There is no simple formula for what kids can tolerate at various ages, Berry said. Parents are the best judge of that.

• Keep talking: "Some kids are magnets to the news," Berry said. Parents can use the news as a teaching tool to deepen their connection with their kids. But "it requires talking through feelings. It's a repetitive conversation," she said. Come back to the conversation several times to check for new feelings.

• Ask children what they're worried about, then address it: The hurricane in New Orleans filled front pages with images of homeless families. That would have been a good time, Berry said, to ask a child, "Are you worried what would happen if we were homeless?" Help them, she said, by walking through what would happen: "Here's what we would do. We'd go to Grandma's house or Uncle John's. The school in our neighborhood would open up and we could be there with all our friends."

• Reassure: Sometimes a kid needs to hear out loud that you're going to do everything you can to keep him or her safe. Just after 9/11, the New England Journal of Medicine published a national study that showed almost half of parents said their kids were worried about their safety or the safety of someone they loved and more than a third showed a symptom of stress. Kids may want to know who would take care of them if you couldn't be there right away.

• Remember that kids react to your reactions. If you are reacting strongly to the news, that might be frightening to a child. Step away and pull yourself together. Also, don't indulge in leaving 24/7 newscasts of tragedy on in the background. Kids pick up on that, and it's as unnerving for them as it is for adults to see tragic images over and over again. Talking calmly about your feelings and how you're dealing with them can help kids learn how to cope with their feelings.

• Watch for signs the news is too much for kids: Thumbsucking, bedwetting, clinging, a change of appetite or sleep habits can signal stress. "Offer extra security temporarily," Berry said. "It's OK to help them fall asleep for one night," she noted, but more than that can start to disrupt their normal need to develop independence.

• Empower your child: Direct his or her attention to the people who are helping -- heroes, volunteers, doctors and nurses, police. The late Fred Rogers, host of the genial, reassuring show for children on public television, recalled that when he was a little boy and scary news happened, his mother would tell him to "look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." Berry recommends pointing out news stories about what children are doing to help. "It's inspiring. It gives them a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation," she said.

• Help your child do something concrete to help: Volunteer together. Raise money. Write letters of support to victims or a letter to the editor. Let your child know what you are doing to help. That teaches kids that while we can't always control what happens in the world, we can stay informed and control how we react to it.

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