The 24-hour news cycle’s heavy focus on terrorism and school violence is planting anxiety and even trauma in some of the smallest members of society — school-age children — but it could be years before the effects of the emotional burden they carry manifest.
Kids catch clips of alarming news coverage, see the fear on their parents’ faces, and are required to participate in active shooter drills at school. The consequences, experts say, can range from recurring nightmares to a general fear of public places.
“What’s so frightening for kids is that they see it can happen anywhere. At a cafe, at school,” said Ellen Braaten, associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “With kids, we generally don’t see this big population where everyone comes in as soon as this sort of thing happens. Most kids need time to integrate this with the rest of their world. It lingers. It’s not as immediate as it is with adults.”
Braaten, who has recently seen children only now showing residual effects from the Boston Marathon bombings, said, “We’re probably not seeing the beginning of what this multitude of stories are doing right now.”
The magnitude of terrorism and random incidents of mass violence is difficult enough for the adult mind to comprehend. But for children, psychologists say, the motives behind these attacks are impossible to comprehend.
And parents who stay tuned in to media coverage of terrorist attacks and show signs of concern could be wreaking havoc on their child’s psyche — regardless of their physical proximity to the event, said Jonathan Comer, a child psychologist who was at Boston University during the marathon bombings and conducted research on local children.
“It’s very important that parents are cautious about exposure to news,” Comer said. “With the 24-hour news cycle, parents themselves can be sucked into watching continual coverage.”
Comer found in research conducted after the marathon bombings that out of 460 Boston-area kids aged 4 to 19, about one in 10 experienced post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares, clingy behavior and social withdrawal after the bombing occurred.
He said local children are particularly susceptible to experiencing anxiety after the recent attacks, given the city’s own history with terror.
“With regard to the Boston community, which has had its experience with related events, parents definitely want to look out for these warning signs,” he said.
The behavior of surrounding adults is also crucial to the child’s coping processes, said Donna Pincus of The Child Anxiety Network and a child psychology professor at Boston University.
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