How to talk to kids about upsetting things they see on TV

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A little girl is visibly concerned while watching TV alone.

Despite the best efforts of parents, it’s never been easier for kids to stumble upon sights that may disturb them. While the internet is a huge reason for this, a routine trip through the channels in your TV lineup can be littered with images that may confuse and shock a young mind.

Countless studies, going back decades, have found a correlation between TV viewing in children and levels of aggression and tendencies toward violent behavior. Scientific research has shown that exposure to violent imagery on TV causes kids to feel numb to the upsetting effects of violence, accept it as a way to solve problems and imitate what they see violent characters doing.

All that doesn’t even factor in the general distress it can cause in developing brains. A study of 1,700 kids done by Nemour Children’s Health, one of America’s largest pediatric health systems, found that “scary movies and TV shows” was the thing that most children picked when asked what frightened them most in the world. It ranked well ahead of things that really could hurt them, like violent storms, war and terrorism.

This isn’t surprising when you understand that kids, especially those under the age of 8, have a difficult time distinguishing fantasy from reality. To their minds, a destructive battle between superheroes and monsters on the TV screen may as well be a news report.

Finding Family-Friendly Content With Your OTA Antenna

While streaming networks and cable are loaded with content made specifically for adults, the shows and movies your child is likely to see on over-the-air broadcasts will generally be tamer. If you’ve already gotten yourself set up with the right OTA antenna and are ready to start watching TV for free, the biggest thing to make sure your kids don’t watch alone is the news, especially coverage of breaking stories. Watching the news with an adult always helps add context to stories that can seem really threatening to a little one.

We’ve put together a list of quality family-friendly programming that you can watch with your kids that will hopefully keep everyone entertained and feeling safe. When in doubt, consult the nonprofit website Common Sense Media for reviews of shows and movies aimed at telling parents whether they are appropriate for kids of various ages.

Plus, you’ll save some serious money when you make the switch. The average cable package costs $217 per month, which is a whopping $2,604 every year. Initially, streaming subscriptions like Netflix and Hulu seemed like they would be cheaper options (averaging $5 to $18 a month). But now, the average household has eight streaming subscriptions, so you could end up spending $1,728 annually!

What You Need To Switch To OTA TV

Ready to start watching free over-the-air TV? First, take this short quiz to find out which antenna is best for you. To make it easy to get started, we’ve put together two bundles of recommended equipment for watching free TV, including OTA DVRs that let you record and pause live TV.

Recommended antenna if you live in an urban area or nearby suburb:

Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse Amplified TV Antenna

$64.99 from Amazon

This highly-rated indoor antenna is designed to receive frequencies 50+ miles away from broadcast towers. It easily grips smooth surfaces like walls or windows for optimal placement to pick up as many channels as possible.

Recommended antenna if you live in a far suburb or rural area: 

Antennas Direct ClearStream 4V TV Antenna

$130.20 from Amazon

This powerful antenna has a range of 70+ miles and can be installed inside, outside or in the attic. It has UHF and VHF multi-directional elements designed to deliver reception in remote areas.

Pair your antenna with an OTA DVR to record your favorite shows:

Ditch the costly subscription fees, but keep the cable capabilities (record, pause, rewind and fast forward) with an OTA DVR device. Here are the products we recommend:

If you have an external hard drive sitting at home collecting dust, consider these options as cheaper alternatives. Simply connect your antenna and portable hard drive to these Tablo DVR devices and you’re ready to go.

  • Tablo DUAL Lite: Equipped with built-in Wifi, it lets you position the antenna and DVR for the best signal reception.
  • Tablo QUAD: Record up to four OTA channels simultaneously. This model connects to your router rather than your TV, giving you the option to stream live TV to any device.

If you need to purchase a portable hard drive, we recommend USB-connected portable hard drives (USB 2.0 or 3.0, 1 TB to 8 TB in size). These are the ones we recommend: WD 1TB Elements Portable External Hard Drive and the WD 2TB Elements Portable External Hard Drive.

Talking To Your Kids About Upsetting Images On TV

If, despite your best efforts to prevent it, your kids have witnessed something on TV that has left them shaken, here are some of the ways you can help them get past the trauma that upsetting imagery in the media can cause in children.

The first thing to know is that if your child tells you directly that they’ve seen something that has bothered them, that’s a positive. It’s much worse for a child’s overall mental health if they feel unable to talk about what bothers them with the adults in their lives, which can lead to repression.

“It is good that he is able to talk to you about what happened and to share his fears with you,” Dr. John Sharry, a social worker and psychotherapist based in Ireland, told a parent in the Irish Times who had written to him asking for advice after their son saw a scary image from a movie and couldn’t sleep well for weeks.

Sharry said it’s important to let the child know they shouldn’t feel silly for being scared of images on TV and that they should “be patient and compassionate” with themselves. He said they should be told that lots of people would be bothered by what they saw and that the lingering fear of it is to be expected.

The more details they can share with you about what has bothered them, the better, Sharry said, as talking to an understanding ear can curb the tendency to repress and turn that understandable fear into something deeper.

Make sure your kids know they will never get in trouble telling you about upsetting things they’ve seen, even if they’ve seen it by breaking a rule you’ve established. Australia’s ABC Everyday said this will help ensure that they are comfortable telling you when they’ve seen something that’s disturbed them. Remaining calm during your talk with them can also encourage them to be open if it happens again in the future, which it likely will.

If what’s upsetting your child is a frightening character from a fictional TV show movie, you should explain to them that there is no way for it to hurt them in real life, and Sharry has some great tips for those cases.

Since the child’s vivid imagination is what’s causing most of the lingering fear, he suggests having them imagine the character being locked in jail or destroyed somehow. He also said it can be helpful to make the character seem as ridiculous as possible, by having the child imagine them speaking with a silly, squeaky voice, for example.

When the source of the distress is coming from images from real events, whether a news broadcast about something scary or a documentary airing on TV, it’s important to ask your kids exactly what they know about what they’ve seen, according to NPR. It’s vital for kids to understand how rare the extremely violent events they may see on the news are — such as catastrophic storms or mass shootings — which is why they are reported on so heavily in the first place.

Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, told NPR it’s not helpful to label the perpetrators of violent acts as “bad guys” or “evil,” as these abstract labels can sound concrete and only increase fear and confusion. She also said not to be afraid to tell your kids, “I don’t know,” when they ask why something bad has happened in the real world.

Also, be sure to tell the child about all the people who are helping to make the situation better. Knowing about these helpers can make the world feel less frightening to a child, Truglio said.

Getting Started With OTA

The best antennas recommended by experts in the industry to get the most out of your OTA experience.