Helping Kids Process Information

At no time in history has a generation of young people been so exposed to the influence of media and been so constantly barraged with content from multiple sources. Adolescents and children receive information from entertainment sources (YouTube, Netflix etc.), sports, Social Media (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) and politics/world events (CNN, Fox, Reddit, Vice, The Daily Beast, etc.).  For children, who are busy developing their sense of self, it is easier for them to misinterpret information, become over whelmed and fearful, misled by nefarious sources, and at the very least confused by the mixed messages which exist in the world of media. 

Through informational sources, children begin to formulate their worldview and value system. This process in past generations happened in a much more micro manner. Young people gained information from their families, through interaction with their school and community and via books, articles and conversations. Families sat down around one media source (the family television) and watched a show together and often processed the content as a family unit. Those days are over, according to research by C&R Research, 22 percent of young children (ages 6-9), 60 percent of tweens (ages 10-14), and 84 percent of teens (ages 15-18) own a cell phone. What this means is children are left to gather, interpret, navigate and process information largely on their own.

It is essential that parents create an atmosphere where their children feel comfortable processing all of this information. There are some useful strategies that we teach camp counselors each summer, which are also applicable to parenting that relate to creating an environment where campers feel the freedom, safety and desire to open up about complex feelings and thoughts. Here are a few of the tips.

1.     Create a structured time where you check in with your son. Each night counselors take the time to check in with all of the campers. They use games like High – Low – Hero, where campers offer the high point, low point and a person who was a hero for them that day. Children appreciate structure, it makes them feel safe and if you consistently create a structured way to express their thoughts, they will naturally begin to open up to ideas tangential to the original topic.

2.     Pay attention to invitations to talk about difficult subjects. Children take indirect routes to talk about difficult subjects. As adults, helping children open up about complex issues, we have to be very mindful and aware. When a child says something like, “I don’t like mean people”, they may be opening the door for you to explore the interaction they had recently relating to someone acting mean.

3.     Ask open-ended questions. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. When they open up about an interaction they had, ask them how it made them feel or what they thought of that person or instance.

4.     Talk less, listen more. Avoid using your conversation as a time to let your child know what they should or should not be doing/thinking/saying.

5.     Avoid killer statements. A killer statement is any phrase that shuts down their process of exploration. Killer statements can be as blatant as “Well that’s just silly/stupid.” Or as subtle as, “I can’t believe that happened at school”. A statement like the latter is an indicator of your judgment and halts their process. This leads to the next and one of the most important points.

6.     Be careful of letting your reactivity or emotions shut down the conversation.  By creating a space for your child to process information you may learn that they have been exposed to ideas or images, which shock you, or you would prefer them not to have seen or heard. The surest way to halt this process is to react impulsively. If you are feeling this way, take a deep breath and try to continue the conversation with the intent being to help them understand and for you to understand their perceptions. If new boundaries need to be set, which will keep them away from certain content, set them at a different time.

The most present and mindful parent is regularly confronted with the limits they have in sheltering their children from negative influences. By making it a point to not just regulate your child’s media consumption, but to create a space to help them process it, you help them understand and process the complex world they are living in.

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