It used to be a rare occasion that I would be called upon to offer an opinion or advice on how to talk to kids about a traumatic event. Unfortunately, the calls are no longer so rare, as our normally safe world is threatened by people determined to scare, hurt — even kill — those around us. Our little ones are not immune to the fear.
In an attempt to prepare for heinous acts or even benign threats, the very places that children see as safe havens away from home, have implemented drills to prepare students and staff in the event that they need to react quickly. Lockdown drills are common in schools, for example. If a crime is in progress in the neighbourhood, students are locked in their classrooms and told to stay away from the door.
Even though preparation is important, it can also engender fear and panic in young minds. Today, unlike the way that most of us grew up, little children feel a greater need for vigilance. And beyond this, catastrophic events — being reported in a much more pervasive way than 20 years ago — highlight the belief that the world is not entirely safe. Even young children are exposed to this news via social media, or as a result of hearing it from an older sibling. This has resulted in more children manifesting anxiety at an even younger age than years ago.
Despite our awareness that the world does not feel quite as safe as it did when many of us were children (maybe we were simply less aware of bad news without the constant hum of newsfeeds and social media), there are still ways for us to help our children feel protected and safe.
Note When People Help Others During Difficult Times: This helps illustrate that there are many more good people to balance, or even outweigh, the bad.
Note That Calm Usually Outweighs Chaos: As frightening as the event is, remind kids that there are still more calm days than chaotic ones. Remind your child that this type of event hardly ever happens (even though you might worry that it’s happening more often than before). Young kids don’t need to know the whole truth, especially when it’s so important for them to feel safe and secure.
Let Kids Know Adults Have a Plan: Even though we prepare kids to know what to do in an emergency, we can remind them that adults will lead the way and that they can rest assured that they will not have to be in charge.
Expand Kids' Circle of Trusted Adults: Kids feel safer knowing that we are not the only adults who can help them. So, when you don’t arrive on time to pick your child up after school he doesn’t panic. He knows he can ask the teacher or principal for help. He knows he can call a neighbour, a family member or your best friend. Knowing that there are several reliable and accessible adults can help create a wider safety net and make your child feel more secure.
Turn Off the News: It is our job to cut the news feed after a short while when our children are with us, especially if the crisis is ongoing. We need to be aware of how we talk about the event when our children are present, and how they are taking in the information.
Preschoolers: Very young children, especially those with younger or similar aged siblings, are more protected from the wildfire nature of bad news spreading across a school playground, for example. This, along with your conscious awareness of when and how to talk about any traumatic event, will protect very young children from worrying about them.
School Aged: Once children begin attending school, they will start to hear about news and current events before you can tell them. In addition, some teachers may bring news events into the classroom with the best of intentions. Some children may respond to these events more emotionally than others. Watch for any change in your child’s moods and keep up on what is going on around them when they are not in your care. Then, try to deescalate the situation by helping your child feel that the world is mostly a safe place.
Teens: It’s virtually impossible (pun intended) to keep your older child away from social media. So, don’t be surprised if he or she brings recent news events to your attention. Rather than having to wait for the next newscast or newspaper to be printed, we now get second by second broadcasts as they happen. This has many advantages but can also create a greater need for hyper vigilance and anxiety as your teen experiences and tries to process the news. Try to be aware of social media apps so that you keep up with your older child’s world.
Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at helpmesara.com.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2016.