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Violent Images Impact Kids Differently

Experts offer age-appropriate tips to maintain your child's sense of security in a world bombarded by scenes of violence.
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WebMD Feature

Turn on the news and you'll see violent images from the latest disaster – a gunman kills more than 30 people on the Virginia Tech campus. Glance at the front page of the newspaper to view the aftermath of the latest disaster -- natural or man-made.

After awhile, this constant barrage of violent images tends to induce numbness in adults.

The same can't be said for children.

"As a culture, we have become incredibly desensitized to violence. We're used to one catastrophe after another." says Susan Villani, MD, medical director of school programs at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md.

"But this [violent image] may be the very first for a child. I worry that there is no break in sight for our children because adults themselves have become so comfortable with violence," she says.

Age-by-Age Guidelines

The onslaught of violent images in the media leaves parents wondering how much they should allow their children to see. What impact does it have? How should they respond?

The answers, say experts, depend largely on the child's age.

The Youngest Children (Ages 0 to 6)

Very young children, between 0 and 3 years of age, are too young to understand the meaning of violent images, explains Lynn Hagan, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker and expert on how violence affects children. But that doesn't mean they're not frightened by them.

Therefore, it's important parents offer reassurance to young children who see or hear about violent images. "They need to be told that they're being taken care of by their parents," says Michael Salamon, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York.

Plus, it's never too early to send messages of self-reliance, says Salamon. "Tell them, 'We'll teach you how to take care of yourself,'" he says.

Ideally, say the experts, it's best to avoid exposing very young children to violent images altogether.

"For children under 6, it's realistic to shield them a fair amount," says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, a psychologist in Emory University's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

That includes what they overhear from their parents' conversations. "Monitor your conversations," Kaslow cautions adults.

In spite of parents' best efforts, it's likely the youngest eyes and ears will be exposed to violent images. When that happens, parents should do some damage control.

Hagan offers the following suggestions: "Maintain your usual routine; keep things as normal as possible for your child. And reiterate that you're not going to abandon them."

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