Overwhelmingly violent news has consumed us in recent weeks with the terrorist attacks in Israel, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and now the latest horrific mass shooting nearby in southern Maine.
For children and young people, it's especially difficult to feel overwhelmed by current events without proper support. Dr. Gene Beresin, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, joined GBH’s All Things Considered to talk through how to support young people through difficult times. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: Tell us about how children and young people might react to cycles of traumatic, violent news. How are the ways in which young people might process this differently?
Gene Beresin: It's a great question. Think of it developmentally. I mean, toddlers and preschoolers, for example, will respond differently than school-aged kids versus teenagers.
Very young children react more to their parents' emotional states than to the events themselves. What they're picking up on is the feelings and the affect and the emotions that their parents have. And they may respond with irritability, with regression, with clinginess, whininess, temper tantrums.
And it's different than the school-aged kids, because school-aged kids are a bit older and they have somewhat of a grasp of the situation, but they really haven't been able to understand concepts like "justice" and "right from wrong." And they're very black-and-white in their thinking: the good guys and the bad guys. They can't distance themselves emotionally and see things objectively as well as, say, teenagers can, so they personalize it.
Then they worry that these things can happen here, and they'll have anxiety in terms of separation from the family, difficulty sleeping, fear of the dark or burglars or harm coming to themselves. Physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches. Thoughts about death and dying, and worries about bad things happening to themselves or their family. And they may also have irritability and outbursts.
And teenagers are old enough to understand concepts of justice, power, control —more of the nuances of these events. Nevertheless, growing up as a teenager who's got their own issues — for identity and independence and autonomy — they're very worried about growing up in an insecure, unsafe world. And they may react with shutting down, or getting irritable or angry. They may ask lots and lots of questions, or they may turn to their friends to talk with them and shut the parents out. But they're able to understand more than the other kids.
So, knowing that, parents and caregivers can tailor their approach to the reactions of kids at various different developmental stages.
“As parents and caregivers, we have to take care of ourselves first, because unless we feel more secure and calm, we’re never going to be able to reassure our kids that they’re safe and protected.”
Rath: And what advice do you have in the age of the internet? Some kids are young enough to be at an age where parents have some control over their media sources. It just seems like that's almost impossible to do these days. And there is just so much awful stuff out there — both actual images of violence, and fake images of violence we're having to deal with now.
Beresin: That's correct. And so the rule of thumb is to keep media limited. You can't get around it. Kids will eventually see images. However, for the youngest kids — for toddlers and preschoolers and for school-aged kids — I would keep media to a minimum. But we all have screens. We all have smartphones, tablets. Our houses are loaded with them. We're really digital hostages.
On the other hand, for teenagers, it's often useful to ask what they're watching. To ask where they're getting their information. To watch media with them and pause it and stop it and say, "What do you think is going on here? How do you understand this? How are you processing this? And do you have any worries or concerns?"
But research has shown that traumatic, horrific media images can cause acute and post-traumatic stress disorder in kids of all ages. We know the power of media, and we've seen that in 9/11, in the Oklahoma City bombing and in a whole variety of other really dreadful imagery.
Rath: And something else that that feels new compared to when I was a kid: We're seeing so much violence, and kids are seeing so much violence, in places that we would have thought of as being safe, like schools. We're seeing like family locations: this bowling alley in Maine, or going to church or temple. How can we help our kids deal with this trauma of being in a world where their fears about being subjected to violence might not be so unfounded?
Beresin: Let me start by saying that as parents and caregivers, we have to take care of ourselves first, because unless we feel more secure and calm, we're never going to be able to reassure our kids that they're safe and protected. So, the first step is, it's like what the flight attendant says: if the pressure drops, put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then help the person next to you. We've got to take care of ourselves.
Parents can do that in a variety of ways: talking with partners, spouses, friends, relatives; being a part of a community; making time so that you're not overloaded with the media and flooded; pacing yourself; and if you have specific questions about your kids, calling your primary care pediatrician or a psychologist. So let's start with that.
And then for all kids, whatever ages they are, I think there are three basic questions. Am I safe? Are you, the people taking care of me, safe? And, how will these events affect my daily life? And then we can address them and help them feel safe and secure.
“The other thing for kids of all ages is to maintain relationships, because we human beings are pack animals. We need each other.”
Some basic things are: keeping a routine at home, sharing feelings and having frequent — but intermittent and short — conversations. How are you feeling? What are you worried about? What are you thinking about? And if they ask you, in their own way, if you're anxious or upset, you need to be honest and say, “Yes. But having feelings, whether it's fear or anger or upset, is all a part of being human. And we can manage this.”
The other thing for kids of all ages is to maintain relationships, because we human beings are pack animals. We need each other. We learned this during COVID, during the lockdown. Whether we need each other on the screen, digitally, or whether we need each other in person — we need relationships. So, one general thing that we can do to help our kids, of all ages, is to make sure that they maintain their relationships with their family, with their friends, with mentors, with spiritual leaders, with important people in their lives.
And finally, I think another thing that's important for all kids of all ages is that they all know that some things are terrible, horrifying, disturbing happening in the world. If they feel they can make a contribution — if they can write a card, if they can give — it releases oxytocin in the brain, actually, and makes us feel better connected with other people. But it also feels as though you can do something about it rather than being a passive victim.
So, those are principles for kids of all ages. And then you have to tailor your responses as a parent or caregiver to the developmental stage of your child or teenager.