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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.

Children 6 to 12

Typically, children in this age group "lack the depth of consequences," Hagan tells WebMD.

That's why it's important for parents to make themselves available to discuss what's behind the violent images their children witness. "Tell your children repeatedly that you're there to talk about it with them," Salamon urges.

To make such a conversation effective, parents need to know where to start. "Ask how much they know and understand about what's going on. Don't automatically assume anything," Hagan says.

It's likely initiating a conversation will lead to ongoing dialogue. "Be available to your children. As they process the information, they'll be coming back to you," Hagan says.

Teens

When it comes to teens' exposure to violent images, parents can and should take a direct, involved approach, Salamon says. "Go over the news, read the newspaper together, discuss what's going on," he suggests.

Older children exposed to violent images can find it empowering to be part of a solution. For instance, if a natural disaster strikes, parents may suggest that their children contact the local Red Cross chapter to see how they can volunteer to help.

When kids get involved, they gain a sense of control, explains Hagan. "It makes them feel like they're making a difference," she tells WebMD.

Older children may also find comfort in developing a plan of action, should a catastrophic event touch their own lives, suggests Brian Chu, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University.

"Problem-solve with your child," he says. This might include plans on how parents and children can maintain contact with one another in the event of a tragedy, like getting in touch by cell phone. The level of detail parents offer during such a discussion should depend on the age, maturity level, and general anxiety level of the child, explains Chu.

Reduce Excessive Exposure at Any Age

Most experts agree that children, regardless of age, should not be exposed to an excessive amount of violent images. Seeing a bomb explode is one thing. Watching it detonate repeatedly can make a single incident seem much grander in scale, particularly to an audience of young children.

Take, for example, coverage of 9/11 events. "Little kids kept seeing those images, and they thought there were lots of planes," says Kaslow.

Around-the-clock news coverage from multiple sources makes it difficult to limit exposure. "It's constant. We have 24-hour news stations, which leads people to believe they live in an unsafe environment," Villani tells WebMD.

So it's up to parents to monitor exposure. "TV shouldn't be background noise, particularly 24-hour news shows. That visual image is enticing, but children can't necessarily process it," Villani says.

Fear is one consequence of excessive exposure; unwanted behavior changes are another. "The literature has concluded that, in some cases, repeated exposure to violence heightens neurochemical changes in the brain that correlate with aggressive behavior," Salamon tells WebMD.

Plus, lots of children need a break from the real-life violence they confront in everyday life. "Thirty five percent of children are sexually abused over time. Seventy percent of children in urban environments are exposed to violence. Why would we want to exposure them to even more?" Salamon asks.

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