HOUSTON (January 26, 2010)

Although news gleaned from television, radio, or the Internet often is a positive educational experience for children, problems can arise when the images presented are violent or the stories touch on disturbing topics.

News coverage of natural disasters, such as the devastating earthquake in Haiti, could make youngsters worry that something similar is going to hit home, or fear a part of daily life - such as rain and thunderstorms - that they never worried about before.

"It is natural for children to worry when they see and hear about scary things in the world, so take their concerns seriously," said Cathy Guttentag, PhD, a child psychologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at The Children's Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, which is affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.

"Limit kids' exposure to things that are upsetting to them. Be aware that if the TV is on, or if you are having a conversation with another adult and the children can hear you, they are taking in some of that information even if they don't seem to be focusing on it," Dr. Guttentag continued. "You may need to save watching or talking about these events until after younger kids go to bed. "

Unlike movies or entertainment programs, news is real. But depending on a child's age or maturity level, he or she may not yet understand the distinctions between fact and fantasy.

"Preschoolers have a hard time differentiating between what is real versus not real on television," Dr. Guttentag said. "In addition, young children typically are most worried about the implications for themselves - am I safe? Could this happen where I live?"

To calm children's fears about the news, parents should be prepared to deliver calm, unequivocal, but limited information. This means answering their questions truthfully, but only in as much detail as a child needs to know.

"Older children may have feelings of compassion and worry for the people who have experienced the trauma even if they themselves do not have any friends or relatives in Haiti," Dr. Guttentag said. "If kids are bothered about a story, talk to them and help them cope with their fears."

Keeping an eye on youngsters' TV news viewing can go a long way toward monitoring the content of what they hear and see. Other tips:

  • Recognize that news doesn't have to be driven by disturbing pictures. Public TV programs, newspapers, or newsmagazines specifically designed for kids can be less sensational - and less upsetting - ways of getting information to children.
  • Discuss current events with your child regularly. It's important to help kids think through stories they hear about. Ask questions: What do you think about these events? How do you think these things happen?
  • Put news stories in proper context. Showing that certain events are isolated or explaining how one event relates to another helps kids make better sense of what they hear. Broaden the discussion from a disturbing news item to a larger conversation: Use the story of a natural disaster as an opportunity to talk about philanthropy, cooperation, and the ability of people to cope with hardship.
  • Watch the news with your kids to filter inappropriate or frightening stories.
  • Talk about what you can do to help. In the case of a news event like a natural disaster, kids may gain a sense of control and feel more secure if you find ways to help those who have been affected.