STYLE

Monitor media use, keep open dialogue in addressing Ford story with kids: expert

11/07/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
TORONTO - With headline-grabbing revelations of crack cocaine use by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford blanketing newspapers, the airwaves and social media, adults may be faced with questions from inquisitive kids curious about details emerging in the ongoing saga.

Representatives from a trio of school boards within Ontario — including two in Toronto — told The Canadian Press that they haven't fielded any inquiries from teachers — nor offered guidance — on how to address the subject in their classrooms, saying that they trusted teachers were well-trained and adept at handling the issue.

A spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic District School Board — for which Ford once served as a volunteer high school football coach — said any current affair or historical event has teachable moments, including the story involving the mayor.

John Yan, head of communications for the TCDSB, said the school board will offer guidance to teachers on how to broach extremely sensitive topics, pointing to last year's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., as one such example.

"In that particular case, we did offer some guidance from our psychologist and social worker department where we did advise teachers if they had students that expressed fears about coming to school to ... look for in terms of that situation. But this one is totally different," Yan said.

"This is a current affair in terms of a political issue, so we don't have that same level of anxiety. We're talking apples and oranges here. One is basically conduct of a public official. The other one is something very personal to students."

MediaSmarts, a Canadian not-for-profit charitable organization for digital and media literacy, developed a resource working with Dr. Arlette Lefebvre, staff psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, aimed at helping kids cope with media coverage of events that might be traumatic or stressful for them.

"Certainly, this normally comes in the form of coverage of things like natural disasters. But something like this that can be emotionally disturbing as well ... really a lot of the same issues apply," said MediaSmarts director of education Matthew Johnson in reference to the Ford story.

Johnson said there are several key points when it comes to dealing with kids' reactions to high-profile stories, the first being the importance of monitoring their media exposure and not assuming they're unaware of what's happening.

"Certainly things do get around, and even kids who normally don't pay attention to the news or who may have never picked up a newspaper very well may be hearing about this story — particularly when it's something as sort of salacious as this one."

Johnson said parents should also keep an eye out for any signs of anxiety or confusion being exhibited by children.

"Frequently, when it's something like this where someone who is a figure of authority is found to have a side that's very different from their public side, this can, especially for kids in the pre-teen years ... be very confusing.

"When kids are at a stage in terms of their cognitive development where they really have a literal interpretation of rules — which often happens in the pre-teen and early teen years — seeing someone in authority who is admitting to breaking some laws, and again, being very different from how they present themselves to be can be quite stressful."

Johnson also advised against leaving the TV or radio on as background noise as there can be a cumulative effect from seeing the same story and images over and over again.

What may be most important is taking the time to listen to any concerns that kids have, he noted.

"That doesn't mean you have to go into long and detailed explanations, especially with younger kids. It may just be enough to explain to younger kids who Ford is and why people are interested in what he's done and what's happened to him and leave it at that. But you do need to be honest and answer your kids' questions when they have them."

Johnson said it's also important for parents to share their feelings on the subject matter.

"The reason this is such a big story — or one of the reasons — is because people have very strong opinions on a lot of issues relating to this story. Letting them know that it affects you emotionally as well can really help them to process their reactions."

While kids are receiving information about the Ford story through the same medium used to access entertainment programming, Johnson said it's important for parents to emphasize that real people and issues are at the core of the matter.

"We are talking about human beings. As much as this is often fodder for comedy, there are some quite serious emotional issues at the heart of this, as well as serious political issues."

MORE:cpStyle