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Media Violence:
How Can You Reassure Your Child?

QUESTION: My nine-year-old daughter is too terrified to go to sleep at night because she thinks someone will "get her." With all of the horrible crimes that she hears in the news media, I can't tell her that nothing will happen to her. She tells me that bad things happen all the time to innocent people. What can I do?

ANSWER: By this age, children begin to experience themselves as more separate from their parents. Social institutions, such as schools, play an increasingly important role in their development outside of the family. Simultaneously, death is considered for the first time, with a more realistic understanding that life ends. It is natural for a child of this age to be preoccupied with death as they grapple with this new sense of separation and more accurate realism. While still embraced in the protective home and family environment, they become increasingly aware of their own and their parents' vulnerability. Still, there are things you can do, as a parent, to make this period less stressful for your child.

As you have discovered, your nine-year-old no longer accepts blanket reassurances from you. Instead, your reassurance must be more realistic and specific. First, ask your daughter to discuss with you exactly what is bothering her. Talk with her about any news stories that concern her and share with her your reactions. Reflect her feelings of sadness, anger or fear.

Secondly, consider talking with your daughter about efforts that may be taken to change the future for others and the concern that other adults share for the situation. Let her know she is not alone in her fears or in the attempts of others to make changes for a safer society. If appropriate, name such organizations like the Polly Klaas foundation and relay stories to her about children who have escaped harm, too. She will need your perspective to understand that although you cannot absolutely protect her, it remains unlikely (statistically) that she would be harmed.

Do not refrain from talking about strategies she can use to keep herself safe, too. Enrolling her in a self-defense program or some other activity that allows her to channel her fear into action can also help her through this period and teach her valuable skills.

Eventually, she will accept the message that the world can be a scary place, but that there are ways she can protect herself, too. What is important is that your child does not become so overwhelmed by identification with becoming a victim that she is unable to develop a sense of her own empowerment.

This leads us to a related question: How do we protect our children from a flood of anxiety over the latest breaking news on the radio, or TV? The good news is that parents are the filter through which our children process worldly experience. They will accept our realistic comfort and our direction.

It is inevitable that our children will hear upsetting stories, but do not make a habit of watching the news with your child present on a daily basis -- and certainly not before bedtime. Turn your television off at these times!

If your daughter watches the news, talk to her about what she has heard. Always watch it together. Like any television programming, you should know what your child is viewing. Children do not have the defense filters that adults have developed to process information. They can become fixated and emotionally plagued by news stories or images of realistic depictions of violence. Fact or fiction, violence can be highly disturbing to young minds. Although you cannot eliminate her exposure to the the fact that bad things happen, you can help her to slow the input of information down.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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