Violence and civil unrest have undoubtedly become topics of discussion across the country after the extensive media coverage following last month’s fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Knowing that many of us serve children and families who may identify with this tragedy, we must ensure that we are sensitive and adequately prepared to recognize their needs and appropriately support them.
It is well known that media can have a profound effect on the psychosocial development of children. As a child psychiatrist, I am keenly aware of the vulnerability of today’s youth. Seeing and hearing about crime and violence can produce fear and anxiety. It can even promote aggression and desensitization to violence.
Minority children especially are vulnerable to stress responses when witnessing harm and injury to other minority children because of real or perceived racism. We must be mindful of this reality and ask ourselves what we can do, as mental health providers, to protect the children that we serve from these potentially negative effects.
The first step is recognizing the child’s level of exposure to the media coverage of an event and making an effort to understand the child’s reactions to the media coverage. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists (AACAP) urges professionals to conduct a thorough history to ascertain the amount and type of exposure to all forms of media coverage after extremely stressful community events.
The organization underscores the importance of a thorough evaluation of the content — as well as the context of children’s exposure to media — recognizing that it is not only what the child is viewing, but with whom they are viewing and discussing this coverage that can effect their reactions.
The next step is helping parents understand the value of their responses. Children tend to look to the reaction of their caregivers and other key adult figures to help them understand and cope with traumatic or stressful events.
Fortunately, our children can be protected from the most damaging effects of media stress if the adults closest to them respond appropriately, attentively and with reassurance. Adults should model healthy coping skills and engage children in age-appropriate conversations that answers questions and promotes optimism and resilience.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the AACAP encourage parents to watch the news with their children and talk about what has been seen or heard. As providers, we should guide parents to be mindful of the child’s age, maturity, developmental level, life experiences, and vulnerabilities when deciding how much and what kind of news the child watches.
Finally, we should assess for any psychological morbidity that can result from media stress and intervene appropriately. This includes recognizing any new onset or exacerbation of fear, anxiety, depression or behavioral problems, and collaborating with the family and other providers to provide support and treatment.
Although we cannot protect our children entirely from disturbing outside events, we can help them to feel safe, heard, and understood by being aware of the potential effects of their exposure, taking the time to understand their reactions and providing the appropriate support and treatment.
Melissa Vallas, MD, is lead psychiatrist at Children’s System of Care, Alameda County (California) Behavioral Health Care Services Agency.