Helping kids cope with disasters in the news



Estimated Reading Time 3 Minutes

Tornadoes, tsunamis, terrorist acts – adults aren’t the only ones with concerns about disasters. Most tweens are aware when they happen elsewhere and will turn to their parents for reassurance, even if none of them will likely occur close to home.

“This age group has a bigger knowledge of the world thanks to technology,” says Peggy Koopman, a Vancouver-based psychologist who has worked extensively with tweens. “Even though they trust that certain people in their lives – their parents, teachers, law enforcement officers – are there to protect them, they can still experience fear and anxiety.”

Peggy offers the following tips on how to respond when your tween worries out loud after watching a news report about a distressing world event or hearing that something upsetting has happened to someone he or she knows.

DON’T DISMISS CONCERNS.

Never say something like, “Don’t be silly, you shouldn’t worry about that.” Children know when they’re being put off or when something is being candy coated. Instead, be as honest as possible. Also keep in mind that tweens are dealing with a fairly small peer group, so a classmate getting killed in a car crash will have more of an impact on them than hearing there has been a tsunami in Japan.

NEVER IGNORE QUESTIONS.

“All questions deserve a truthful answer,” says Peggy. “Just don’t go overboard with the facts, which could worsen the worry.” Respond with a level of understanding you feel is appropriate to your child. For example, if your daughter is afraid a tornado will destroy your town, explain how they develop, how often and where they typically occur and what the early warning signs are. The right amount of information is empowering.

AVOID TRANSFERRING YOUR FEARS.

Be careful not to transmit your own fears onto your children. If you are afraid of dogs and take another route when you see one running along the sidewalk, your child will pick up on the fear and may end up sharing it.

ACKNOWLEDGE AND ACCEPT YOUR CHILD’S PERSONALITY.

Shy, sensitive children who are unsure of themselves in certain situations or afraid of making mistakes tend to worry more. “Those aspects of their personality are inherent,” says Peggy. “You have to find an effective way to handle them.” Being an active listener is a good first step.

CREATE A SECURE ENVIRONMENT.

If there’s a sudden divorce, a parent dies or the family moves a lot, children may develop a general sense of insecurity, making them more vulnerable to anxiety. For most tweens in a stable home, the world is a reasonably safe place.

WHEN TO SEEK HELP

If your tween’s normal behavioural patterns change in certain distinct ways, he or she may be suffering from clinical anxiety or childhood depression. Vancouver psychologist Peggy Koopman advises watching for the following changes:

  • keeps bringing up a fear even though you’ve done your best to allay it
  • draws pictures of disasters
  • seeks information elsewhere about the issue, such as on the Internet
  • spends more time alone/withdraws from friends
  • changes sleeping and eating patterns
  • becomes irritable or lethargic

If more than one of these signs are present, first check with your child. Allow them to rattle on about whatever they want to talk about, and keep the lines of communication open. If that doesn’t reveal clues, check with the school counsellor or teacher to see if there have been issues at school and speak to your child’s doctor.

“Make sure the individuals you turn to are skilled in working with this age group,” adds Peggy. “And don’t rush to therapy – that sends the message to the child that, there’s something wrong with them because they can’t deal with their emotions. First try to get help as close to home as you can.”

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