We’re bombarded by ongoing media images of terrorist shootings, bombings, and mayhem. Small surprise, then, that many children are burdened and overwhelmed, especially in a time when social media can spread news faster than we’re able to turn on – or off – a television. What should we say or do for children growing up in a world where, on the surface, it appears that danger and chaos are always lurking just around the corner?
As clinicians, we are asked these questions all the time. Parents and schools can do so much to help. Here’s a small list.
1. Turn down the news. Adults often watch and listen continually to the latest updates concerning terrorist events. Children, however, may be exposed to more than they can absorb. Limiting this exposure can go a long way to alleviating their anxiety and allow them to grasp the safety and solace that exists in their world.
2. Make room for the discussion and ask questions. What we don’t tell children they fill in with their own fantasies and fears. It’s essential to listen and respond in a way that conveys caring, respect for their worries, and safety. Children know that bad things happen – really, it isn’t a surprise to them – but we can remind them that we’re here to help. It’s essential not to tell them more than they can take in. Watch a child’s face as you’re sharing sad news or providing an answer to a question. Is she understanding this in a way that helps her make sense of what’s going on, or is it pushing her level of discomfort? It’s critical to observe closely.
3. Maintain routines. This sounds simple but it’s not always so. We need our own routines – exercise, enough sleep, regular meals – to help children maintain theirs. Children tend to cling to the consistent routines in their lives and any major disruption is likely to increase their anxiety and fear.
4. Interact with a child’s teacher. She needs to know what any child is aware of in terms of a major world event and whether there are signs of increased anxiety such as nightmares or other sleep disturbances, changes in eating, etc. This way, the teacher will be alerted to signs that a child may need additional support. In addition, it will inform her as to how much to say about the event within the classroom. Parents sometimes ask that schools refrain from discussing world events but, nonetheless, children talk among themselves. Without adult involvement, children will have no way to put these events – and their fears – into context. Often, the best plan is to hold a time-limited discussion based on children’s ages and what they already know. The latter can’t happen in an effective way if teachers aren’t properly informed.
5. Did I mention that it’s imperative, critical, urgent, essential and really very important to turn down and even shut off the news sometimes? Children listen even when we think they aren’t. Their worries will be stoked by the stories and pictures barraging their eyes and ears. It is our personal gift to them when we contain our own fears and limit – not attempt to shut off – their contact with media images of life-altering disasters.
Given current world events, it’s more than likely that further tragedies will occur. We can do what’s in our own control; that is, we can help children see that, amidst these awful occurrences, our world is generally safe. Maintaining the routines and rituals – and, sometimes, even the joys – of childhood is sometimes the best present we can give our children.
- James Levine, Ph.D., LICSW, August 3rd, 2016