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How much upsetting news should your kid see?

A little child is held by rescue workers after being rescued from a building at Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, on Saturday March 12, 2011.

Kyodo News/AP/Kyodo News/AP

Images of extreme devastation continue to stream out of Japan. Many parents are wondering what to share with their children, and how much they can handle.

"On the one hand, it's very educational and you can see what's going on. If you're an adult, you can process that," says Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist on the anxiety disorders team at Toronto's SickKids Hospital. "If you're a seven-year-old and you're watching these images of water overtaking towns and engulfing cars and swirling around boats as though they're toys, that's quite traumatic."

Even half a world removed from the disaster, these images can have very real consequences for children. Frightened children can have trouble sleeping, behavioural problems including acting out and clinginess, and even physical symptoms such as stomach or headaches. Younger children and kids - even older teens - who already suffer from anxiety are particularly vulnerable, says Dr. Mendlowiz.

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"What we tell parents is that they really need to turn off the television, especially the younger the child is," she says. "Overexposure is what really has a negative effect on children."

Dr. Mendlowitz says she'd usually suggest this to parents of children aged 6 and younger, but in this case she'd extend that to kids 12 and under and include other media sources of disturbing footage such as YouTube.

It's also important to talk about how the disaster has already affected them. But avoid the urge to overexplain, she says. "You don't want to suggest things that aren't in their realm."

For kids 12 and under, start by asking what they know. Younger kids can often have skewed ideas of the truth, such as a fear that a tsunami will hit their home. The most common response is that they are afraid that they and their loved ones are in immediate danger.

This is the moment for what experts call "corrective feedback." For the younger child, a sample script might be: "We're safe. There are lots of things that happen in the world and those things aren't happening here. If there's a problem with anything, Mommy and Daddy would make sure that you're safe."

Even if you've turned off the TV, there are other visual tools you can use. One mother used a time-zone map to reassure her daughter that the tsunami was not going to hit their home.

"When I told my daughter about the tsunami, her first question was, 'Is it going to hit us?'" parenting blogger Sierra Black writes at Strollerderby. "Using a time-zone map turns our conversation into a great 'teaching moment'; not only did my kid walk away reassured about the safety of our own home here on the East Coast, but she understands more about time zones now."

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The Canadian Red Cross has also developed a curriculum for use after natural disasters, aimed at children ages 5 to 16. Students are urged to process media information and redirect negative thoughts about the events. And for kids aged 10 and older, experts suggest tapping into children's sense of community and charity to ease their minds.

"It's an opportunity to learn how to support other people in the world," says Dr. Mendlowitz. "And a way for them not to feel helpless."

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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