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A traumatized generation: Have children become numb to horror?

Aisha Sultan • May 8, 2013 at 9:40 AM

A traumatized generation: Have children become numb to horror?

By Aisha Sultan

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


“Did you hear about what happened?” Patti Eischen of St. Louis, asked her 17-year-old daughter, when she came home from school April 15.

“Yes. We talked about it in school,” Claire Eischen said. “It’s horrible. It’s just another one.”

Just another one.

For those children who were just at the age of becoming aware of news events when the Sept. 11 attacks happened, this is indeed yet another traumatic, graphic scene of violence that has punctuated their childhoods.

Children who were 7 or 8 then have also witnessed Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown and now, Boston. Random acts of brutal violence in elementary schools, colleges, movie theaters and places of worship documented by a 24-hour news cycle.

Previous generations who grew up through wars and turbulent times didn’t have live, graphic images broadcast nonstop into their homes. Today’s children have known a constant state of perpetual war. The violence is both distant and so near.

“They see the horribleness of it,” Patti Eischen said, about her two teenagers and their peers. “But it’s like they are numb to it.” She’s done what many parents of this generation have learned to do: Protect them from what they are too young to see, talk, educate and reassure them.

But, does this kind of exposure leave our children desensitized and less able to empathize?

“The younger the child, the greater the potential impact of these kinds of events,” says Dr. Victor Strasburger, distinguished professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

A number of studies show that just regular news stories — not just the ones about catastrophic events — can be frightening to children, he said. “There’s really no reason to expose young children to news.”

Turn the TV or radio off if children are around. Look at what images turn up on the computer and on phones. Less is better. Much, much less.

“Young people have become desensitized,” he said. He said he believes the news media need to be more careful about how they broadcast violent news. Years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention drew up voluntary guidelines for the media on covering suicides. The fear is that such coverage can spawn copy-cat actions. For the most part, the media complied, Strasburger said. “I think we need a new set of guidelines on mass shootings and terror-type events.”

In addition to thinking about how we cover such events, more than ever, we need to show our children the moments of hope in such tragedies. The first responders who ran toward the explosions. The runners who finished a 26-mile race and kept running to a hospital to donate blood. Residents who opened their homes and hearts to those along the route and those displaced from their homes.

The conversation must always include asking our children what we can do to help. It turns feelings of despair and grief into action. The discussion should always begin and end with this simple and powerful idea expressed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Patti Eischen says it’s a message she hopes her children have internalized. “Time and time again, people will rally, and they will take care of one another,” she said.

But when the parental instinct is to protect, and you realize you can’t always do that, the impulse turns even more basic.

“All I know how to do as a mother is hold on to them and pray,” she said.

Together, we mourn the loss of an innocence our children never knew.

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