Traumatized by the News

The following is a recent e-mail conversation I had with a friend in another city.

Dear Alison :

My 11-year-old son and I are very close, and he will talk to me about anything and everything (I hope it lasts.) He is also very sensitive to the outside world and what goes on in the news. Today he said something to me that scared me badly. He told me of a dream that he had about Kosovo, in which the Russians helped the Serbs turn on the States and Canada and started killing us. The dream was bad enough, but then he looked very serious, and said that with all the people in the world killing each other, and schools not being safe any more (like what just happened in Littleton), there was no point. I asked what he meant by no point. He said that kids are getting shot or stabbed (a kid in his class took a jackknife to another kid), and perverts are stealing and killing kids (we just had a new “pervert alert” in the area), so there was really no point in living, and maybe he should just die now and save himself from being killed by some kid gone nuts in school or some creep on the street. He said he often thinks about just dying now, when he hears stuff like that.

I told him I was sorry he felt that way, and tried to tell him of all the wonderful things in the world. I told him of all the people who love him, and how special and gifted he was, and that if he died before he had a chance to grow up that the world may be losing out on another Monet or van Gogh. And also how much I would miss him, as well as all the people who loved him. I also told him that if he ever felt like he had to die that he should come to me before he did anything. He said O.K. I don’t know if I handled it right or not. He seemed much happier after we talked, but he is only 11 years old and is already feeling the world’s insanity and pain, and worse, taking it to heart.

I think you handled it beautifully. Your words were reassuring about his specialness, about the good things in life, about his being loved and wanted, and about your being there on an ongoing basis to support him. No wonder he was happier after you talked.

I know the kid in his class with the knife has picked on him a number of times before, and this last incident (though it wasn’t directed at him ) took place the day after Littleton. Should I talk to the school? Should I stop him from watching the news? I really don’t know what to do. Do you have any suggestions?

It might be a good idea to stop him from watching the news. It’s funny, kids this age can watch violent movies and TV shows without being bothered, because they know they’re not real, but the news can upset them far more, because they know it is real. What they don’t know is that these horrible events are really rare; that’s why they are on the news. Tell him that. Tell him that these thigns aren’t happening everywhere; that’s why they are news, because they actually hardly ever happen. Tell him that good things aren’t news, but they happen all the time. Help him think through the statistics – how many high schools are there on the continent, and in what percentage of them such events happened. How far is Canada from Europe, how rich are the Russians, what kind of defense systems do we have over here. And so forth. So he can get some reassurance about the actual probability of the things happening that he’s worried about. You can also get your son reading some positive uplifting stories, and watching some positive uplifting movies, to change the balance of information he has.

What do I do when the news is part of home work for current events?

Talk to the school – the teacher, the school counsellor, and if necessary the principal. Quite frankly, I think it’s pretty insensitive for a teacher to assign this kind of homework to children of this age. A lot of kids are feeling like your son currently. They’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from all the horrible events on the news! Your son is at an especially sensitive age for this – old enough to know his parents can’t keep him safe from everything, but too young to know how to handle things. Many, many kids are going through this at present. That’s one reason why so many boys are so preoccupied with macho posturing – because they don’t feel safe. You might ask your son if there are any situations he feels he might run up against that he wouldn’t be able to handle, and discuss what he could do if they ever happened. He might also feel reassured if he took a self-defense course. You should also talk to the school about the kid with the knife. That is a dangerous situation, and you and other parents need to know what the school is doing about it. Let your son know you are doing it, and ask him if anything you say could endanger him further (e.g. if the boy found out who told.) Make sure you take these considerations into account when you talk to the school. Remember, kids at this age aren’t old enough to defend themselves, and shouldn’t be left alone with their problems. Your obvious close bond with your son is really important for him, and will carry him through the rough times. But this situation also requires practical intervention in his environment. Good luck!