by Dr Jasmine Pang

There has been a plethora of difficult news stories to hit our screens recently: from child abuse involving high profile, previously well regarded alleged perpetrators to mass violence resulting in multiple deaths. While the media can help to inform and educate, it can unfortunately also have the potential to upset and confuse. How can we manage the distress our families and we might be experiencing in response to news stories? These tips might help you and your family through these difficult times.

1.  Understand media exposure

Media coverage can increase fears and anxieties in children and us. Sometimes we identify with the news stories because we have experienced similar events or been in similar circumstances. The more time we and/or our children spend watching coverage of the tragic events, the more likely negative reactions will occur. Graphic images and news stories are especially distressing to children. Very young children may also not understand that the coverage and repetition of images is a replay. They might think that the event is continuing to happen or is happening again.

2.  Limit media exposure

Monitor how much exposure you and your children have to media coverage of events. Turn off the radio or news to limit how much exposure you (and your family) get to the images, discussions and information no matter how curious or compelled we might be. Be particularly mindful about being exposed to potentially distressing videos and articles. Most potentially distressing news stories have a disclaimer before being screened. You may choose to eliminate all exposure for very young children.

3.  Focus on successful community efforts and positive stories

Find positive media images and stories, such as people helping those in need. Focusing on these stories help to give a sense of hope and provides a balance to the pain and suffering witnessed. Reassure children that many people and organizations are working to help those injured and affected. Give them a sense that people are actively taking steps to protect those that are currently suffering. Explore ways to help or make meaning of the events together. Consider what you and your family might be able to do together to make meaning of the events or help out.

4.  Seize opportunities for communication and keep engaged with others

Connect and talk about your reactions to news with other adults outside earshot of children. Talking with friends or trusted individuals about your reactions and feelings help to normalise, provides an opportunity to correct misinformation and provides different perspectives. However, be mindful that young children often listen when adults are unaware and may misunderstand what they hear. To ensure you have the opportunity to correct any confusion or misunderstanding, discuss news stories with your children depending on their age, asking about their thoughts and feelings about what they saw/read/heard. Reassure them of their safety and/or plans to keep them safe

5.  Seek help

For some individuals, news stories may highlight past experiences that they might not have processed or worked through, resulting in a significant increase in their distress. If you find that this distress is not reducing despite time and limiting exposure, do not wait for it to start impacting on your functioning. Seek help early by speaking to your General Practitioner or a mental health professional.

When you or your family is part of the story

1. Know your limits

Decide if it’s a good idea for you and/or your children to talk to the media. While you might want the story told, the media might not be the best place to do so. Consider whether it is the right time to tell the story, as well as what you are willing to discuss and what you are not. You have the right to keep to those limits and can stop the interview at any time. Keep in mind that when stories are told in a public space that it can expose you (and your child) to scrutiny and commentary.

2.  Protect yourself and your children

Ensure that the reporter has experience working with individuals/children/teens exposed to traumatic events in the past. If the media wants to interview your child, talk it over with your children and give them permission to say no. Know that you or your child can stop the interview at any time. After the interview, discuss the experience with your children and listen to any concerns they might have. Monitor the impact of the publication of the story might have on you, your child and your family.

3. Focus on recovery

Remember that your family and you have gone through a potentially traumatic event. As such, your priority and focus has to be recovery for you and your family.

Information adapted with thanks from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)