Many Chicago parents are struggling with how to deal with the gruesome images of the war in Iraq that are seeping into homes each day.
You cannot turn on a television without hearing a promo for a news show about the war. Nor can you find a newspaper that does not have pictures of collared and leashed Iraqi prisoners, a handcuffed Nicholas Berg seated at the feet of five terrorists prior to his beheading or wounded American soldiers.
Even if we wanted to protect our children from these images, could we? Some experts suggest the better question is: should we? Keeping children in the dark may be more harmful than protective.
Anne Parry, director of the Office for Violence Prevention at the city's Department of Public Health, says parents need to understand that children are being exposed to these images and they have an affect. "We ought not to lie to children, nor should we bombard them with information they are neither ready for nor interested in."
Joseph A. Durlak, clinical psychology professor at Loyola University in Chicago, agrees: Parents should not lie. He says it is best to be direct with children and try to explain what's happening rather than to leave them curious.
Younger children might see violence on the news as a cartoon since it's so extreme, Durlak says. But older children probably know that someone has been hurt and often want to know why.
"Parents need to get on top of this," Durlak says.
Heather Eskra, a revenue manager in Chicago, says her son, Jonathan, 8, may have a grasp of what's going on in the Middle East, but seems disinterested. Jonathan's teacher doesn't discuss the situation in class and Eskra chooses not to bring it up at home, so Jonathan does not pay much attention to the war.
However, Veronica Lewis, an administrative assistant in Chicago, says the events in the news sparked the interest of her 7-year-old daughter. Lewis says she has to watch the news out of her daughter's sight. "It's too gruesome," Lewis said. "I wish [the media] would stop showing those pictures. They just build hatred."
Putting the news into context can help children understand that the bombings and assaults they are seeing on television and in the newspaper are happening on the other side of the world, not next door, Durlak says.
But, says Parry, at the same time it is a delicate balance because we are a global community. "If we don't address this at the front end with kids, then we are missing a primary educational opportunity to teach them how violence affects all of us," says Parry.
"We need to address violent behavior-whether it is bullying or physical violence-at the front end of a person's life."
Viewing grisly images can affect every child differently, depending on age, temperament and prior exposure to violence, Durlak says. He warns parents to pay attention to changes in their child's behavior. While some children become more withdrawn, Durlak says other children may mimic the actions they see on television by hurting their siblings or animals.
While Durlak thinks the media often sensationalize what it prints or broadcasts some media officals believe they are justified in what they display.
"I think we've been fair in showing what's happening," says Todd Wollman, assistant news director for WBBM-TV, Chicago's CBS affiliate. "It's been hard to look at for everybody, but that's what's going on."
Parents can also talk to other parents and find out how they are approaching their children, says Parry.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org) and the American Psychological Association (www.apa.org) both have articles online discussing how to talk to children about violence as well as what warning signs parents should look for to make sure children are doing OK.
"Adults don't even like to watch this stuff," Durlak says. "A lot of it is really unnecessary. But, like it or not, kids are getting exposed to it."
Says Parry, "It is better that we help children process these events in a way that says we all have to do better. "
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