Helping your child when the news is frightening
It seems like every day there is a new crisis in the news, whether it is a shooting, devastating storms, threat of a terrorist attack or even closer to home, a car accident or fire that can affect us personally.
If we, as adults, become alarmed by the headlines, how must our children feel?
In those moments of fear and anxiety, how can we react and help our children understand and cope?
“Your response as a parent depends on the age of the child and what the disaster is,” said Alexander Heard, MD, chief medical officer of Falmouth Hospital and a pediatrician with Cape Cod Pediatrics. “I think the best way to tackle it is to meet the child where they are. The biggest piece is to understand their conception of what happened and answer just the question [they ask]. And then open the door for follow-up questions.”
Children react differently, depending on what and where the disaster happens, he said.
“The disasters that are more local and happens to someone they know or are inside their family are much more powerful, even though the event may not be as cataclysmic as 9/11,” said Dr. Heard. “Part of that is because it shakes their bubble of safety and consistency. Kids feel safer with safety, consistency and boundaries.”
Social media adds to the challenge of processing information, because it is immediate and makes it difficult to “unplug,” according to Dr. Heard.
”If you see something on social media, you may need to process it, but you don’t get the time because you get 40 more texts in the next minute,” Dr. Heard explained.
He offers the following tips to help your child process crisis information.
- Control the exposure through TV, internet and social media, especially if it’s a crisis outside of your area.
- Open the conversation.
- Listen to what your child is saying.
- Answer questions.
- Get help if you can’t answer the questions.
- Meet the child where they are in their thinking about the crisis.
School Safety Drills Provide Reassurance
Teaching children how to stay safe and reassured is another opportunity to discuss crisis situations.
“We’ve had several kids who had issues after the shooter drills and lockdown drills at school,” said Dr. Heard. “But it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation ahead of time, which will help them deal with a future crisis. And that’s where you rely on things like fire drills, seat belt campaigns and wearing helmets to talk about how school programs are designed to keep them safe.”
Dr. Heard also recommends the information provided by The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Here are some highlights:
- Take care of yourself first. Children depend on the adults around them to feel safe and secure. If you are anxious or angry, children are likely to be more affected by your emotional state than by your words. Find someone you trust to help with your personal concerns.
- Talk about the event with your child. Not talking about it makes it even more threatening in their mind.
- Start by asking what they’ve heard. Listen for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears or concerns, and then address them.
- Explain the events as they occurred, as simply and directly as possible. Like adults, children are better able to cope with a crisis if they feel they understand it.
- Reassure children of the steps that are being taken to keep them safe.
- Recognize your child may be disinterested and may not be ready to discuss their concerns.
- Consider sharing your feelings about the event or crisis with your child. It’s an opportunity to model how you cope. Be sure you are able to be positive and hopeful.
- Help your child identify concrete actions he or she can take to help those affected.
How do you know if your child is not coping well?
Dr. Heard listed some of the signs:
- They’re not sleeping, having difficulty falling asleep or having nightmares.
- Not able to get through school the way they used to.
- They start acting out.
- They test their boundaries to make sure their boundaries are still intact.
“If your child is struggling, get the whole community to help out,” said Dr. Heard. “Get counseling, talk with your pediatrician, communicate with their teacher and coaches because the more consistent message kids hear, the safer they feel.”