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Children need reassurance about the terrible combination of events in the news at the moment. Miranda Green outlines one resource which is helping.
Every day brings more photographs of beautiful, smiling Norwegian teens, killed by a gunman while on their summer break. These days it has become impossible to avoid images of terrorist attack victims being helped through wreckage with bloody faces. While the tragedy in Norway is disturbing enough for adults, imagine what impact these news events have on children and teenagers.
This year has been an extraordinary year for news, with Japan's tsunami and nuclear disaster, revolutions across the Arab world and a background of economic turmoil at home and abroad. All of these have the potential to distress and confuse a child.
"There is a need to reassure children about the terrible combination of things that we're seeing at the moment," says Dr Nigel Richardson, former headmaster of the Perse School in Cambridge and an expert in pastoral care.
"We need to be watchful for the signs of anxiety, because young people can suddenly and unexpectedly be caught out by their own emotions."
Daphne Joseph, manager of the parents' helpline at Young Minds, the mental health charity, agrees that reacting to something in the news could bring underlying problems to the surface, or prompt delayed stress.
"There may not be an immediate reaction, but later on the young person might be quite anxious. Younger children, particularly, don't fully understand, and something like the events in Norway could make them worse if they already feel unsafe."
Of course, this can affect us all.
I recently overheard a woman who was scanning the supermarket newspaper stands comment to her teenage companion: "Every day the world seems to get worse. I just want to switch it all off."
But any anxiety about the state of the world this older woman experienced was probably multiplied several times over in her young relative: research shows that the minds of teens can find news incomprehensible and distressing in equal measure.
Today's bombardment of constant online updates and rolling television news leaves them stressed, anxious and then repelled. They, like many adults, turn off or stop reading.
"It's become normal to hear about death in the news. In a way we become a bit desensitised to it," says Joseph.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
A mother of two young boys tells me that she is relieved to get away from relatives' houses where the television is always on: the younger, who is about to move to secondary school, gets very worried by disaster stories "in case something happens to people he loves". The older brother, however, has come through his own anxious period to discover an active interest in politics.
This "journey" is key to understanding teenage reactions to news: contrary to assumptions about a general apathy among the young, research shows that teenagers do want to understand the world around them. In fact, surveys both here and in the United States show that they yearn for in-depth explanation.
But there's a dual problem. First, the mainstream media is unattractive to young people who aren't developing the same news habits as older generations (they jump about until something, usually online, catches their eye). Secondly, teenagers, feeling their way towards life as independent adults, are unusually sensitive to suggestions that the world is dangerous.
In 2008 a group of American academics at Northwestern University in Chicago researched how teenagers digest the news. They reported that young people feel "hopeless and powerless" when they read or hear about crises at home and abroad.
"For teens, news is stressful and reminds them of the peril in the world," their report says.
I well remember having sleepless nights in the 1980s about what I and my friends felt sure was an imminent and unavoidable nuclear war; we all joined Youth CND out of sheer panic about being wiped out. Similarly, Richardson remembers sitting in class during the Cuban missile crisis and wondering if the school would still be there the next day.
Young Minds had a surge of calls after the London Transport bombings in 2005, as you would imagine, but also during the widespread culling of livestock during the foot-and-mouth crisis — seeing all those animals destroyed was very upsetting for young people. These days, parents report that 13-year-olds tend to come home sobbing about climate change.
So what can we do?
The US researchers recommend that instead of the constant, deafening roar of 24-hour news channels, which amount, says Richardson, to "the same disaster being played out repeatedly", parents and schools point teenagers towards reliable and easily digestible news sources.
But these sources have to provide a different sort of news analysis specifically for a teenage mindset:
good sources of information and understanding and a springboard for debate and action to, as the academics put it, "diminish the negative associations teens have with news and to lift their feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness". Being encouraged to research the background and write about their feelings of peril also helps, as does finding out how to take positive action, such as raising money for charity or volunteering.
It's crucial to reassure younger children by listening seriously to their concerns and explaining why they shouldn't be so worried: Norway isn't in the UK, for instance, or we don't get tsunamis in Europe.
But with teenagers, try not to shield them too much: because a teenager is on such a dramatic journey of self-discovery, being able to understand, digest and debate the news can bring feelings of pride to counteract their anxiety. Some even develop a new, news-aware persona, like the pupils in the US study who enjoyed standing out from the crowd by becoming the "go to" guy on what's in the news.
And as all the experts agree, parents should know that it's better to have a child showing a healthy response to distressing events than having no interest in the plight of other beings, even cattle: "It's quite normal for them to react," says Joseph. "It shows empathy. You'd be more concerned if they didn't."
Miranda Green is editor of theday.co.uk, a new daily online news service for secondary schools
Original article from: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/families/article3109720.ece