Montefiore in the News
New Episode of The Conners Asks: “How Much Covid-19 News Should Parents Talk to Their Kids About?”
- March 3, 2021
Jessica Gold Marc h 3, 2021 11:00am EST
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I write about mental health, the media, and everything in between.
“Can we just enjoy sitting down to one meal without talking about Covid-19?
This is the question Dan Conner (John Goodman) poses to his daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and her son (his grandson) Mark (Ames McNamara) in this week's episode of “The Conners.” Dan has just witnessed them exchanging news stories about Covid-19 over breakfast and is concerned by how much Darlene talks to Mark about the pandemic. Given Mark’s anxious nature, he is concerned by how much he might be affected by the constant stream of negative news.
But, truthfully, this conversation could have occurred in any of our households. In fact, as Bruce Helford and Dave Caplan, both Executive Producers, noted, at least for the writers and producers, this was a common discussion at home when they wrote the script in July and August. And, instead of the topic becoming irrelevant since they wrote it, Helford added that it has only become more important “because the amount of information has just been building and building and building and building.”
This cultural relevance to actual conversations of the typical American family is what makes “The Conners” such an important, relatable family show. This is true even, and perhaps especially, during the pandemic. Helford says that while people might feel like they don’t want to hear or see more Covid-19 anywhere, when they watch characters they love, they still want to see reality. This is one reason why they made the conscious decision not to skip years ahead or ignore Covid-19 like other shows. Caplan agrees and emphasizes the importance of honesty and humor to break up the enormous human tragedy that has been the past year. He says, “I think we have a bond with our audience where they expect us to be kind of brutally honest...We feel like we're giving them what they want from us.”
By seeing themselves in the Conners, viewers can even learn from their struggles and mistakes. In the episode, Darlene tries to understand the “right” way to balance the information she tells Mark about Covid-19. Dan suggests that she lie to him as “kids can’t handle everything that goes on in the world.” Yet, Darlene emphasizes that lying is impossible as he can get any information that he wants from his phone and he then would never trust her again.
We know kids are consuming television and social media at increasing numbers over the pandemic, and spend much of their day on theirs screens even just for school. Caplan says balancing social media and multiple screens have taken information control away from the parent and that in itself is quite novel for a crisis. He calls it a “Herculean task” for the parent and one that Darlene, even with the best intentions, has a misstep over.
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) explains, “We are all struggling with what to say to our kids. There is no perfect plan, because the circumstances are so imperfect…Parents are dealing with their own fears and anxieties while having to decide how to handle their kids’ emotions...It’s not a bad takeaway to be honest while still trying to keep in mind that some kids are scared and want their parents to help them feel safe.”
How Do Experts Advise Parents To Discuss Media With Their Children?
Mini Tandon, DO, Associate Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis and Author of the Dr. Mini Mental Health Series, explains that when thinking about how to present news media to kids, no media is not a possible expectation and isolation with too much media is unhealthy. She operates under the premise that “everything in moderation” is the best. This is sort of the “Goldilocks model” of media consumption.
Dr. Tandon says that if you can, watch the news with your kids, or, if not with them, plan to talk about it afterwards. You can also at least have an open line of communication where it is understood that your children can ask you any questions about what they see and if you do not know the answer, you will look it up or ask a professional. Hina Talib, MD, Pediatrician and Adolescent Medicine Specialist at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and Spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, adds that parents can act as a sounding board or fact checker for their kids. For their older children, they can discuss what they hear from friends at school. She also suggests that turning off the news or limiting the news is important, especially as it often replays the same stories over and over and they have often have dramatic, fear mongering headlines.
News messages that come directly from the parent should be tailored not just in amount, but, as Dr. Tandon explains, by emotional maturity and the child’s previous mental health history. For example, if a child has a previous history of anxiety or trauma, they might not be able to talk as much about something like a pandemic, no matter their age. Timing of these conversations is also of critical importance. Dr. Tandon suggests that parents should have these talks when the house is calmer and not when they are tired or before bed. She says, “Timing is important and having a relaxed and open atmosphere where you have time to answer questions rather than [when you are] running out the door saying ‘oh yeah, the world is collapsing’” is key.