You might think I’m recommending this because some child development research shows that watching TV and other digital devices can negatively impact the developing brain and hinder children from engaging in more beneficial experiences – and you’d be right.
But that’s not the primary reason I’m urging you to keep televisions and other screens off while your kids are around (and to ask all those who care for them in your absence to do so as well).
Lately, our screens are often filled with the violent images and sounds of horrific events like mass shootings, terror attacks, and disasters. And many screens are big, making these scenes all the more frightening. We ourselves have difficulty watching, and I’m sure many of us turn off the sound and turn our eyes away. While we are disturbed by seeing these scenes, our already-developed brains and minds are not harmed by seeing them.
Infants, toddlers, and young children, however, are harmed by seeing and hearing these events on screens – their brains and minds are “under construction,” and they have no coping strategies. Thus, we have to be their protectors and ensure that they aren’t exposed to things that are harmful to them.
Because it’s impossible to prevent all exposure to these things, here are some suggestions to help infants, toddlers, and young children during these times. These tips will also help when young children see natural disasters such as fires, either on screens or near where you live. Use these tools according to the age and developmental needs of your children.
First, take care of yourself so that you can be calm, soothing and available to hold and reassure your children. The younger the child, the more you should provide hugs, love, and physical reassurance as a primary means of helping them cope – and your older children may benefit from additional comfort, too. There is nothing more important than your strong and comforting relationship with them during times of stress and trauma, whether direct or indirect.
For all ages, maintain familiar daily routines and structure. This helps children feel safe, even when they don’t understand language. If you experience a natural disaster or other traumatic event, try and keep as many things unchanged as possible.Give permission for the expression of all feelings, and share your feelings, too – but remain in control. Don’t dwell in feelings without providing comfort and reassurance.When talking with and answering questions from preschoolers and older kids, first find out what they know and feel without interrupting. Then clarify if necessary, and answer their “Why?” questions simply. Say things like, “Sometimes bad things happen,” or, “Sometimes people do bad things.” Then reassure them that you will take care of them. Remind them of what Mr. Rogers said: “Look for the helpers.” This helps them realize that there are kind and good people in the world who help others when times are hard.
Finally, a good strategy to develop empathy and help children cope with their feelings, is to encourage them to think of ways to help, too. It may be something as simple as gathering food for a food bank, donating a favorite toy, or drawing a picture to send to someone who is hurting. It doesn’t matter if their acts of kindness are not directly related to the traumatic event; what matters is that they are doing something kind for someone else in a difficult time. Using our brains and minds to help care for others is one of the most important coping strategies all of us need throughout our lives, so starting young will help make this stronger in children.Many of these suggestions are from www.zerotothree.org
Mary Dodd is MECC’s chief knowledge officer.