Children’s reaction to the recent national tragedies, how can a parent help.
The last few weeks it has been very difficult to watch the news, anyone who has a heart has felt it break. Our nation has experienced hurricanes, floods, and now a tragic mass shooting. Daily we have seen images of hurt, pain, and fear. We have seen families who have lost their homes, belongings and livelihoods. We have seen children whose wide eyes are filled with fear and confusion; and we have experienced it through news and social media which allows us to almost feel as if we were there. The last month has been saturated with tragedy. Where do we go from here with our children? If you are a child watching the news, this never stops. The rain and wind blowing happens every day, children and families being rescued in boats happen over and over again, and the screams of fear and gunshots continue all day long. If a child is younger than 5 they are still trying to figure out their world. What is real? What is pretend? They may think these terrible events happen over and over again day after day because of the news coverage that is playing in their background.
Children age 3 and under absorb the pain and fear from around them. They may not understand why, but they feel their parent’s fear. They feel the increase in tension, they feel the lack of joy and laughter, they feel the change in routine as we are glued to the news. Young children simply need to know that they are safe. They feel this safety and comfort in routine and favorite rituals. This is their security. They should not have exposure to the media and adult conversations about the tragedies or disasters that may surround them. They need time with Mom and Dad and other adults who love them. Children will feel a parent’s fear, so we must try to keep our youngest children cocooned in love and routine.
Preschool aged children from age 4 to 6 know much more than what most parents think. They hear conversations, watch the TV when it is on, and feel the fear or tension in a home. Magical thinking is very common at this age, so children will “fill in the blanks” with their thoughts. They often think they may be the cause of some of the tragedy. Their “time out” yesterday may in their mind have caused the storm. At this age, children are not able to comprehend time, or the idea of “forever” in death. Preschoolers exposed to these tragedies may develop new fears, have nightmares, and might wonder if the tragedies they see on TV or hear Mom and Dad talking about will happen to them. Often preschoolers will ask questions, but they don’t need answers that include every detail. Simple answers will alleviate their curiosity without elevating their anxiety. Most of all they need to know that you will keep them safe.
Preschoolers will often try to make sense of an event through play. You might see a child who experienced a hurricane actually “play hurricane” to work through the experience. You may see a child draw pictures showing what they felt, feared or experienced. This type of play gives a child a way to work through their thoughts, fears and anxieties. Sometimes the play might be disturbing to parents, such as a child playing that children are running from gunfire, but it is best for a parent not to stop the play unless a child is playing in a way that could result in injury. Later a parent can then talk about the play with the child and again explain how they will keep them safe.
School age children often are working on rule following, what is good and bad, right and wrong. Because of this normal growth and development, when they see natural disasters or tragedies they often want to do something to help. Parents can assist school age children in finding a way to give assistance through local charities. Often children who are a part of responding to the needs of the victims feel less stress and anxiety. Children who have families with religious roots can also rely on prayer to help a child work those feelings. Concentrating on the “heroes” of the moment, those first responders, charities, and wonderful stories of selflessness that always surface during a tragedy are good conversation topics for parents of school aged children and older. School aged children often will have physical complaints like headaches and tummy aches when they are stressed or anxious. Having open conversations about what they know about an event and how they are feeling is important. Talking honestly with a school aged child regarding how you can stay safe such as putting an emergency kit together as a family, talking about weather alerts and safe places, and gun safety is important. Remember not to let your emotions take over and that your message is always that you will keep them safe. School aged children need normal routines and rituals, adults who reassure them and listen to their questions and answer honestly, and controlled exposure to the news and adult conversations regarding the events. Again, children should be allowed to be children and not burdened with adult worries.
Teenagers are extremely aware about the world and events around them. They are very connected to social media and have information at their fingertips. They often know much more than their parents think, and many times don’t like to share their feelings with parents. Teens harbor intense feelings during this stage of growth and development that can become even more intense when they see disasters or tragedies. Their friends are very important and their friends’ reactions can actually fuel their feelings. Teens will watch adults carefully to determine how they should react. They worry about their future and how events may influence their future goals and life. They need open conversations with trusted adults who speak the truth and give solid suggestions for them. What can they do? How can they help? What can we do as a family or society to change this? Motivating teens to act is the best way for them to work through their intense emotional responses. But once again, routine will help a teen get back to feeling in control. Many teens will jump right back into friends and activities to escape the feelings that can be so intense. Respect how your teen learns to handle their emotions.
So as parents, we must keep our feelings and anxiety in check around our children. Our children MUST feel that the world is a manageable place and as parents, we will keep them safe at all costs. Our younger children need to be protected from adult conversations and too much exposure to the news. Our older children need our honesty, time to ask questions and time to discuss. We need to help them navigate the information they hear and develop a positive action/response to an impossibly tragic event. Most importantly, our children need to be children…..protect them from exposure to those topics they can’t process except with anxiety. Hug your family extra tight today, do something that is positive for those victims who are suffering, and concentrate on and enjoy the small joys and blessings in your life. We are a strong nation made up of strong, caring people….we always come together at the worst of times, we will survive and become a stronger, more caring nation. Look around, there are heroes among us!
Take a breath, enjoy the joyful moments of each day, and remember you don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.