I Watch World News Tonight, I Need A Hug.”
Preparing Children Emotionally In A Scary World
writes: With war looming and terror threats broadcast on radio and
television, our kids have started to ask questions. So far they haven’t
shown any ill effects but I’m not sure what to look for and
how to prepare them. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
Peter Jennings doesn’t usually trigger displays of affection
in our 10 year old son but he did so last week. After watching the
encapsulated news stories of battle preparations, code orange alert,
and the public’s efforts to safeguard their homes, our nation’s
troubles were crystal clear. When I heard, “When I watch World
News Tonight, I need a hug,” I hugged him but knew that Jesse,
like millions of other American children, needed more than a hug;
he needed preparation, management and mastery.
These three words came to mind because they have been etched in since
training in psychology. I remember the discussions about children
facing medical procedures, recovering from car accidents, and other
traumatic events. Over twenty years later, I turn to these same three
steps as both father and child psychologist. I believe that it behooves
us all as parents to prepare our children to cope with trauma of an
entirely different scope.
Trauma is a sudden and sharp assault on one’s sense of safety
and control. For children, today’s trauma is embedded in the
words and pictures that spread fear of tomorrow’s events. As
news of war and terror alerts filters into our homes and conversations,
many children will experience some shattering of their security. Some
children will no doubt be more traumatized than others. Preparing
our children for these events offers them a framework for placing
information into an understandable context.
the thoughts and feelings stirred by events involves helping them
to distinguish misinformation, reassure themselves, and find comfort
in close relationships and routines. Mastery of the emotional impact
of the events is the mental process of reconciling the facts with
feelings, so that life can go on, afterwards. Here are some coaching
Preparation begins with considering your child’s unique sensitivities
and predisposition. If world events tend to tip the emotional scales
in the direction of sleeplessness, protracted worry and preoccupation,
proceed cautiously. If, on the other hand, your child tends to exist
in the bubble of childhood, seemingly insulated from world events,
it may be possible to use this opportunity to expand his/her frame
of reference. The following points are offered for your consideration
with the caveat that your own knowledge of your child can be your
Think of preparation as a stable foundation upon which to place heavy
feelings and jarring knowledge. Try introducing the subject of war
by speaking of it in a context. Unfortunately, war has been necessary
in the past to stop people whose beliefs harm large groups of people.
Although our country doesn’t wish for war, we turn to it as
a way to stop those people whose beliefs and behaviors can harm us.
Suggest that war is likely to happen again, and that may make them
feel a lot of different feelings. Fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, and
many other emotions may surface in many people who watch a war on
television and listen to news broadcasts. Explain how these are normal
reactions that will lessen by expressing their ideas and feelings
and asking questions. Point out that they remain safe no matter what
feelings they are having, and that when it’s over, the plan
is for our safety to be even stronger.
Think of management as the daily discussions you will have with your
child to keep up with how events are affecting them. Even though you
may decide to pursue the preparatory approach I advised, it will be
important to supervise and manage the flow of information. If you
decide to allow your child to watch news broadcasts, sit by their
side and periodically ask them about their thoughts and feelings.
For many children, the pictures will have greater impact because they
can be more readily replayed in their minds. Encourage them to tell
you what their peers have said about the conflict, so that you can
correct distortions or deliberate falsifications. Separate fact from
fiction, but place the truth in terms they can understand. Depending
upon their age and readiness, point out cause and effect, the importance
of truth and agreements, and other lessons to be learned. Help them
access their intellect rather than fall prey to their emotions.
Think of mastery as a way of tying off the loose ends of feelings
so that the usual sense of safety and control can return. When our
country is on the other side of this conflict, some kids will need
further help. Some will not just drop the discussion, although most
children will gladly do so. Periodically ask them if they are still
having feelings or questions about what happened. Point out that it’s
okay to keep talking, and that you don’t want them to keep those
thoughts trapped inside. Those children who have been especially shaken
by events should return to normal sleep and behavior patterns within
a couple of weeks. If this isn’t the case, or other troubling
reactions persist, consult with a qualified professional.
Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA.
His column appears monthly. He has developed a child-friendly self-control/social
skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards. His new book,
The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today’s Society
is available through Sopris West (sopriswest.com or 1-800-547-6747)
He can be contacted at www.parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450