Living Life: Helping children in troubled times

By Dianne Smith
Reader Columnist

As grownups, we, too, have been traumatized by the recent events in the world, and with the recent school shooting in Spokane it hit really close to home. We don’t necessarily have answers for all our children’s questions because we don’t really have them for ourselves. It’s difficult to explain to children what is happening, but it is important that we find ways to help them feel safe. It is not easy to convince a child who can’t sleep that “bad men” can’t enter her room to steal her away. Nor is it simple to explain to young people about what is happening in our world and why people are so angry that they commit unspeakable acts such as school shootings, random terrorists’ attacks or more recently the assault on law enforcement. Even in relatively safe North Idaho children still hear about other places and what is happening and it scares them.

No matter how old your kids are, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally. Many can feel worried and frightened as they struggle to make sense of what is happening. These anxious, worried feelings can last long after the news event is over. So what can you do as a parent to help your kids deal with all this information?

The goal for parents is to help children and to give them permission to talk about the potential dangers, and to believe that, for the most part, they can feel relatively safe. Children deserve to be able to feel trust in our country and the adults. They should be able to have confidence that the adults in their world can keep them safe. The challenge is how to do this in a way that is appropriate for their age.

1.  Consider your own reactions. Your children will look to the way you handle the news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will, too.

2.  Young children should be protected from news on the television and radio and from adult conversations. They listen even when you think they are not.

3. Children often don’t understand what they hear, and they are already afraid of things they don’t understand like the dark and the boogey man. They need to be reassured that the adults know what they are doing because they are intuitive and read our emotions. Older children may watch it without adults knowing and may hear about it from their friends. They may need more information and have questions that need to be answered honestly.

4. Reassure your child that events like these are extremely rare. You might say, “This is a really sad time for everyone in our country. Fortunately, events like this are very rare.”

5. Stress that you are there to take care of your child. Remember to say, “I love you, I’m here to take care of you.”

6. Talk with your child about your own feelings. Admit that you are saddened by what has happened, and show that you care. But don’t burden your child with your fears and worries. Your child will look to you as a model for coping with this trauma.

7. Give age-appropriate honest information. Teens will need more information than preschoolers as they are more likely to hear their peers talking at school or see things on the internet.

8. While it is important to be honest about terrorist events, it is equally important to do so in context while communicating with your child in age-appropriate terms. By listening and talking, you can dispel rumors and share what children are hearing in school as well as in the media.

During times of trouble, when emotions run high, adults need to help understand and express their feelings and feel safe. In order to support children in better understanding their world, adults may have to make sense of their feelings that are frightening, confusing, and overwhelming. By providing a safe and supportive environment and pointing out all that is good in life, a calm and ready-to-listen adult can help to alleviate the fear, dismay or confusion they may feel. Although adults cannot shelter and protect children from all adversity, they are able to help children feel safer and secure in today’s world.

Dianne Smith, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has over 40 years experience working with both children and adults.  She can be reached at [email protected].

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