These are uncertain, turbulent times, colored as they are by fears about war and terrorism. As a result, children as well as adults are experiencing higher levels of stress.
When a flu bug is going around, conscientious parents make sure their child is getting plenty of sleep, vitamins, and a healthy diet to build their immune system. How can we, in a similar fashion, build up our children’s capacity to deal with current stresses?
Although there is no magic pill, there is a healthy diet of social and emotional skills that you can provide children. Increasing these skills is the most effective way to help them deal with the current threat, as well as learn valuable lessons to last a lifetime.
It is normal for them to feel afraid, yet there are things we can do to help our kids function optimally in these trying times. Here are some tips for parents, teachers and child professionals…
Tip #1: Ask questions and listen.
Discuss the concerns that your children have by first asking them what they are hearing from peers, school and the news. Don’t push the issue. It’s best not to fill them with fears they don’t have, but also realize that concerns don’t go away if we try to ignore them.
If they are worried, reassure with words like “I can see you are feeling really scared. This is a hard time for us.” “I know we’ll feel better when it’s over.” Avoid telling them “Everything will be okay,” because if something does happen, you’ll lose their trust.
Tip #2: Help them separate imagined from realistic fears.
Entertainment and real events can blend together and their imaginations can run wild–like thinking that a war with Iraq will be like Star Wars. Many kids who saw the twin towers falling on 9/11 insisted it was a movie. Others seeing the image repeated on the news thought the event was happening over and over again. Children need to know that very few people are terrorists and that adults are working hard to keep us safe.
A young child’s experience of “the world” is very different from that of adults. In many ways, they live in a container or bubble that is their immediate social environment—their family, friends and school.
They need protection to preserve that bubble of safety. The news and violent programming can be too upsetting.
If you want to watch the news, do so after they go to bed. It isn’t helpful for them to see people trying on gas masks in hardware stores or bodies being found in the rubble. If they insist on watching, watch with them so that you can gauge their reactions and talk about it.
Tip #4: Attend to your own stresses and emotions.
Kids can literally feel your feelings and stress. The greatest gift you can give them is your own sense of well-being. Provide patience, safety, support and consistency to help them feel secure. If they sense your distress or fears, they can feel overwhelmed and unsettled.
Share your own fears but do so with restraint. Obviously, with older children and teens, it is helpful to talk more fully about the issues and to be more open about your level of distress.
Programs are available to provide kids with songs, lessons, and activities to learn positive thinking, hopefulness, and prevent “bad” or obsessive thoughts or feelings from overwhelming them.
It’s an ideal time to learn about cooperation and consideration, and remember to celebrate differences rather than stereotype and blame. Provide constructive outlets for children’s feelings such as drawing and writing stories and poems.
Tip #6: Help them take actions to feel involved.
Tell them “We are doing everything we can to keep safe.” Allow some acting out of war “play” to vent frustrations, but don’t let it become aggressive. You can also encourage playing the roles of helpers, healers, and protectors such as police.
Tip #7: Help them feel loved and safe by maintaining normal routines.
Children are creatures of habit. They always do better when the daily rituals of connection remain constant and the rules and expectations stay the same. The only places to soften a bit might be if siblings want to share rooms, or if the bedtime “going to sleep” ritual needs to be a little bit longer for a time.
Realize that some kids under stress show overwhelm and acting out, some are quiet, and some become immune and numb. Exposure to video games and violent movies makes it more difficult for many kids to understand the reality of war and destruction.
Although some kids are aware of the stress and their feelings connected to it, others may be showing signs or symptoms without necessarily knowing what they are upset about. Watch for signs of sadness, aggression towards others, new fears that may seem unrelated to the war, or problems with making “bad” thoughts go away. Many children will start acting younger than their age and not want to leave your lap.
Tip #9: Get support for your whole family from your community.
If a family member is serving in the armed forces or is working in a dangerous part of the world, let others know that your children will need extra support and understanding. Tell your child’s teacher, your religious community, and your social network how they can be helpful. If needed, don’t be afraid to seek professional help or guidance.
Whenever there is tragedy in the world, there are also real life stories of love and courage. Traumatic events often pull people together and help us remember to be grateful for our loved ones. They help us put some of our petty concerns into a bigger perspective.
We can use this as a golden opportunity to teach lessons to our children about respect for others, eliminating prejudice, and learning how to manage conflict though non-violent ways of communicating. Although the road to peace may be long and the journey arduous, it can only be taken one loving step at a time.