“Javier says the president is going to make him move back to his country. Is that true?”
“The school was on lock down this afternoon because somebody threatened to blow it up.”
“This kid was beaten up on his way home from school. And they posted it on YouTube. Everyone was laughing about it?!?”
“There was a shooting at the Mall. How do we know we won’t get shot at the mall we go to?”
“Charlie says that the world is going to self-destruct in the next 20 years because of global warming.”
Recently, children and teens have been bombarded with images of shootings, angry political rhetoric, and a nearly constant flood of information and footage through social media, TV, and newsprint. They can’t help but be frightened and stressed out. If we as adults are struggling to make sense of the barrage of horrifying images, our kids and teens don’t have a chance.
So, how can parents help relieve kids’ concerns and answer their questions without exacerbating already existing fears and anxiety? Therapist Carla M. Shuman in her article “The Search for Peace in 2017” says, “Be mindful of what you read and absorb…When people are anxious, it’s very common for them to seek information, often more than is necessary or even helpful.” Shuman suggests we find a couple of reliable news sources and stick to those when reading about current events. Before we can advise our kids, we first have to get a handle on ourselves. Just like when airline crewmembers tell us to put on our oxygen masks first before we put them on our children, parents need to take a deep breath and find perspective BEFORE they try to answer their children’s questions. When kids see their parents freaking out, they may not fully understand what they are being told but they pick up on HOW it’s being said and will respond with fear and trepidation.
Here are a couple of pointers to help you respond to your kids’ concerns:
- Keep it short and sweet
Don’t overwhelm your kids with too much in-depth information on a topic. Most kids younger than age 10 will get very little from a long discussion about deportation, economic uncertainty, or terrorism. You may know that the media can be very biased and focuses stridently on terrifying words and events, and you know that news sources may present information that hasn’t been verified as fact. But your kids may not. So make sure what you do communicate in front of or to your children is clear, concise, and evidence-based.
Remember: Just because you fear it doesn’t make it so.
- Avoid all or nothing thinking
In life, there are few situations or human beings that are all good or all bad. Black and white thinking leads to generalizations and sharp divisions between people. For your children’s sake, you must practice residing in an optimistic shade of gray. When you feel yourself sliding into fear based thinking, pull yourself back to the middle. Take a break from reading or seeking information that confirms your own pessimistic leanings. Help your children develop the ability to view their world through others’ eyes. With perspective taking comes compassion, and with compassion comes understanding and peace.
- Seek peaceful solutions to every day problems
Discourage violence as a way to manage conflict. Instead, help your children develop problem-solving skills that emphasize compromise, negotiation, and perspective taking. These skills develop at home first. Sibling conflicts may drive you crazy as a parent, but they offer rich opportunities for children to learn how to express their feelings and empathize with the needs of others.
- Empathize with your child’s feelings. Reassure their safety.
Develop a plan in the here and now with your child to help them feel safe. Resist the urge to overprotect or avoid situations that provoke anxiety. If, for example, your child, after learning of a recent shooting at a mall, is refusing to go to your local shopping center for fear of being shot, empathize with their fear. “If I thought I was going to be shot at the shopping center, I’d be scared too.” But be sure to challenge the thought by gathering evidence and then facing the fear.
- Model kindness and compassion
Trust that you are constantly modeling your values, morals, and attitudes for your children in everything you do and how you interact with the world.
To a certain degree, kids view the world through their parents’ eyes. What this means is the parent who models a can-do attitude – ‘this is a difficult problem, but I know I can handle it’ – teaches the child that even in an unpredictable world they have what it takes to cope.