Scary News, Scared Kids?


scared kid.JPGWe all know about the power of media to influence our perspective on reality. Even so, sometimes I see that lesson illustrated in ways that catch me off guard and remind me just how important our vigilance really is—especially when it comes to the youngest among us.

A couple of nights ago, I was praying with my two oldest children, Henry (who’s nearly 5) and Annabeth (who’s two-and-a-half), before bed. We generally pray for our extended family and our kids’ closest friends before going to sleep. That night, though, we’d seen a report on the news about the tornado in Joplin, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to help them look beyond our family and friends to have compassion for others in need.

What I thought was a good teachable moment, however, ended up teaching me an important lesson.

After we prayed, I noticed that Annabeth seemed pretty agitated. She kept asking about the tornado and repeating things like, “God, protect us from the tornado.” I thought she was really taking things to heart at first. And she was. But not in the way I’d hoped. Instead, she was really scared. As was Henry.

Fifteen minutes later, I was finally able to allay their anxiety about tornadoes and convince them that they were going to be OK.

I realized after the fact that the news report they’d seen had really gotten to them. Especially Annabeth. Even though we typically mute commercials and stories involving violence or death, my wife and I had watched that story about the tornado while they were in the room—and they had been paying much closer attention than I realized.

Turns out I’m not the only one learning this lesson of late. In the wake of Harold Camping’s failed judgment day prediction, ABC reported on how young children aren’t equipped to parse and process all the news they hear, especially when it comes to images of destruction. Dr. Wend Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, suggested that kids watching the news could easily conflate stories like the one about Camping’s doomsday warnings with a story about tornadoes:

If they're plunked down in front of the TV hearing 'the end of the world' a bunch of times and then seeing photos of the Missouri tornadoes, it may come together in their minds as something real and scary. Kids of preschool age have a hard time determining reality from non-reality and their imaginations are on fire.

That sounds a lot like what I experienced. My kids weren’t worried about the end of the world, as far as I can tell. But they were scared that a tornado might get them in the night.

Their response served as a sobering reminder of how images and ideas—even those on the news—shape the way we view the world. And that’s especially true when it comes to little eyes … and what they see.

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  neildown:

I can relate to your children, Mr. Holz. I can remember a time from my childhood where I myself was paranoid about having a tornado pass through my area. This, however, was from watching too much Storm Stories and Twister Tales on the Weather Channel. I think it is best not to let children watch anything overly traumatic like that without explaining things to them while or before watching it. It would also help to build children up in the content they watch too, so as not to shock them when they see giant, whirling, black funnels of death and destruction.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Wes:

Great reminder to all of us parents! Thanks so much for sharing your story. It is amazing how kids are such sponges and absorb things we don't even realize.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  vanaloth:

I don't think you're being naive.  I think that giving chidlren the same information you give adults won't so much prepare them as scare them out of their wits--their brains don't function in the same way, and their line between what is a real danger and what probably won't happen isn't very well drawn. I remember when I was quite young, my mom read my a children's book of true stories about service dogs.  One of the stories was about a dog that saved a deaf family from a fire by waking them up when they didn't hear the fire alarm.  For months after that, I was terrified that our house would catch fire.  I wouldn't be able to fall asleep, in case it happened, and I would often think I smelled smoke.  While fire is indeed a danger, a specific case example scared me beyond any reasonable level of caution.  General discussion of fire and fire safety, as with the annual visits of the firemen to the elementary school didn't scare me in the same way

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Hithwenur:

To an extent, I'd agree with Nameless... kids shouldn't be completely clueless. But neither does that mean they need to know everything.

I grew up in kind of a rough neighborhood. My parents told my big sister, who procceeded to tell me, "the reason that we don't go outside in the front yard or around the neighborhood without an adult is that there are bad men out there, and you might get hurt." But that doesn't mean I need to know in detail what bad men could do to me. Similarly, children could be told that a really strong storm had hurt a bunch of people and their houses and Mommy and Daddy wanted to pray with them and ask God to take care of the people who got hurt, or something similar, without being frightened by news footage of the destruction.

Of course, it's always possible that I'm being naive.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Nameless:

It's sad that kids have to see this sort of thing. I'm all in favor of letting kids be kids before life steps in, but this is not the same world it was 60 years ago and even beyond that. It's true what we see can shape how we view the world, but I think goes without saying that it is a dangerous world out there, and I think parents should explain that to their kids. I hate to see that a kid is so scared of the world, but I think there's good reason to be. Until God puts an end to this world we live in, the disasters and the people who live as the predators of society will be the norm of this age, and it's probably going to get a lot worse than it is now. Since parents need to be the guardians of their kids, should they not explain why they have to be on guard 24/7? After all, if the parents just act in the roles but don't give a reason, the kid will see them as overbearring and controlling as they grow. If they explain that all of this destruction and the like, kids may understand the reasons for that control.

In short, I would think kids should understand that the world is as bad as it looks and probably worse. We don't live in the same age when kids could just be kids.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  KMS:

We have to be so careful about the exposure our children have to the news.I have a friend whose little son said to him a few years ago, "Daddy, I know The Economy's coming but...." as though The Economy was some monster coming to take him away.Having raised two children in the Greater NY area in the post-September 11th World I can vouch for this situation in my own home.  My two had classmates and neighbors who lost fathers on 9/11.  Kids were afraid that their moms or dads would be the next ones not to come home from work.  Kids were afraid that Osama Bin Laden was coming to get them too.  Kids could not bear getting on a plane or the fact that their loved ones might.  My then 5th grader and Kindergartener were afraid that Mommy was going to meet a tragic end everyday she went to work after that.How could we pretend to be able to protect them from such anxiety or such a scenario?