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Unwanted media attention, like the sort a child who recently knocked over a Teletubbies statue in Hong Kong received, can cause mental anguish to children, say experts in Hong Kong.

How parents can help their children deal with the stress of unwanted media attention – experts’ best tips

  • A toy store’s broken Teletubbies statue threw a five-year-old into the spotlight, with little regard for the effect the fallout might have on his mental health
  • In moments of confusion and distress, parents need to listen actively, and show understanding and empathy, a Hong Kong psychologist says

When a five-year-old child accidentally knocked over and smashed a 1.8-metre (6ft) tall Teletubbies statue in a Hong Kong toy store this week, social media went into overdrive.

Discussion focused on whose fault it was and who should pay for the item that had a HK$52,000 (US$6,600) price tag, with most criticism directed at the store for not displaying it in a safer environment.

Little attention, however, was given to how the incident – and the media fallout – could impact the boy’s mental health.

“Media attention on a child can be overwhelming, especially if the child is of age to understand the content or the focus is negative,” says Hong Kong psychotherapist Gabrielle Tüscher.

Media attention on a child can be overwhelming, says Hong Kong psychotherapist Gabrielle Tüscher. Photo: Gabrielle Tüscher

Blaming a child for something they did not do can cause more damage. In this case, the boy was initially accused of kicking the statue, but video footage showed he had backed into it while moving out of shoppers’ way.

“When children are wrongfully accused of an action, it can create a space of mistrust – especially if others are made aware of it,” says Tüscher. “With lack of malicious intent, this can be extremely painful. A child may want to hide from regular life or not want to go to school for fear of being mocked,” she says, especially when (as in this case) there were videos and photos circulating online.

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This child took time off school in the wake of the incident. In these situations, Tüscher says communication between the child and carer can mitigate the negative fallout.

“It’s important to have open communication with your child so they understand that none of the attention is their fault – nor what prompted such attention,” she says.

“Protecting them from the internet, social media articles, memes and news reports would also control how much or what your child is being exposed to. The bigger deal that’s made, the more the child will see it as an issue.

“In the long term, such public attention – especially if it’s unwanted – can make one more susceptible to peer pressure, low self-esteem and mental ill-health.”

Hong Kong psychologist Carmen Ip says unsupportive parents can enhance a child’s feelings of inadequacy.
Hong Kong psychologist Carmen Ip agrees. “Stress can become harmful when it exceeds the child’s developmental ability to cope, and without adequate support from primary carers, it can lead to emotional and behavioural problems,” she says.

“Their developing brain needs consistency. They are still learning and evaluating their own behaviours with regards to what is ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’.

“When faced with sudden stressful events, unsupportive parents can enhance the child’s feelings of inadequacy.” They may develop feelings of low self-worth and hopelessness, their self-confidence can drop and, in some circumstances, it can boost future problematic behaviours such as lying to avoid similar distress following a stressful event.
Hong Kong-based psychologist Amanda Oswalt-Visher says while accidents happen, we need to listen actively, and show understanding and empathy.

Without adequate support, Ip says a child may develop inappropriate ways to cope with stress. “In extreme cases, it can lead to oppositional or delinquent behaviours as they grow older.”

Amanda Oswalt-Visher, a Hong Kong-based psychologist, says while accidents happen, we need to listen actively, and show understanding and empathy – especially in moments of distress and confusion.

For now, says Oswalt-Visher, it is important to protect and repair this child’s sense of self and safety. “He can learn that sometimes grown-ups mess up and misunderstand. In this case, we all did. But the parents and the shop investigated and admitted fault, which is validating for the child.”

A tip for handling a stressful incident involving a child is to be sensitive and supportive, check that they didn’t get hurt and let them tell their side of the story without judgment. Photo: Getty Images

Four tips for handling a stressful incident involving a child, from Carmen Ip:

  • Remain calm. Don’t lecture the child and be aware of your tone so your voice and posture do not give the child a sense you are blaming them or they are in trouble. This can frighten a child who may still be in shock, and they may become more withdrawn.

  • Remove the child from the crowd to help them calm down and allow you a chance to have a discussion. Be sensitive and supportive, check that they didn’t get hurt and let them tell their side of the story without judgment.

  • Remain sensitive to the child. There may be negative attention surrounding them, so adding to this can harm the child’s feelings.

  • Squat or sit down when talking with the child so that you’re at their eye level. This helps a child to feel less intimidated, and to see that you’re acknowledging their feelings without making them feel like an authoritative figure is questioning them.

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