As everyone is aware, the political climate in the United States is boiling over. There have been shocking events, most notably, relating to race, religion and immigration. I feel this sense of tension and an impending eruption. Unfortunately, it will probably get worse before it gets better. As an adult, it scares me sometimes. That has got me thinking about the impact of scary and jarring events on our children, especially those who already struggle with some anxiety. I would like to point out that I am well aware that events of greater magnitude have long been happening in other countries, such as Syria. I did share some articles earlier this year following the attacks on London to help with this particular topic. However, I decided to discuss this topic in more depth because, as a Canadian, it’s hitting a little closer to home.
4 ways to ease children’s fears about scary things in the media
1. Ask them what they know
This is the easiest way to talk about their fears without giving them more information than they need. Let them lead the way. If they know very little and they seem unbothered by it, perfect, you can move on while encouraging them to come to you if they have any questions. If they know a bit and they feel overwhelmed or anxious about the topic area, you can work with them to quell their fears on what specifically is worrying them. There are kids think they know a lot and are greatly misinformed (we see this a lot with sex education). What we can do is find out what they know and make sure it is true/factual and then discuss it with them. Sometimes more information is helpful when it can debunk myths or clarify confusing subject matter.
Part of calming fears is being a sounding board and a safe place. Listening means not trying to change their mind or tell them they are overreacting. If you say something like, “That’s nothing to worry about,” you might minimize their thoughts/feelings as they are already worrying. Validate them by telling them you hear what they are saying. Ask questions for clarification. Don’t feel like you need to give advice, pry or make the conversation into something major.
3. Remind them these occurrences are uncommon
The reason the media focuses on much of what they do, is that they are rare occurrences. Young children can have a hard time comprehending that but if we explain it to them in an age appropriate way, we can help reduce the stress around the events. With teenagers, we have an opportunity to discuss what media chooses to report and what they don’t.
It’s important to note that part of why these events don’t seem rare is the number of times the same videos are replayed or pictures reposted by a variety of media outlets. The pace at which kids get information is staggering. They are then bombarded by it repetitively so it can take on larger prominence in what they are reading and/or viewing. With something constantly being in their news feed they can associate it with commonly occurring, and obviously, that’s not the case.
4. Don’t lie but leave out the nasty details
Even though it can be our natural reaction to protect our children any way possible, lying about events won’t help. Sometimes children will ask tough questions like, “Did anyone die?” It won’t help them if you lie and say no if someone did. Tell the truth while reminding them the events are rare. You could respond by saying, “Yes, sadly, someone did die. It’s awful but fortunately things like this don’t happen very often.” Then reassure them about their safety.
It’s okay, and probably advisable, to omit the gory details and soften the telling of events by leaving out the intense emotions. Often children don’t ask for specifics as they want to know what happened generally. All the details can be overwhelming and not age-appropriate.
Fortunately, most news stations will provide a warning when graphic images or videos are to be played and this provides us with the opportunity to ask young children to leave the room if you want to watch it.
Ultimately, this generation of children is living in a world quite unlike the one their parents lived in. Let’s be mindful that media and social media overload can be overwhelming and stress inducing. Fortunately, as adults, we can be of assistance when we use these four guidelines.
For those children who have some big worries or anxiety, I want to provide you with a practical technique that you can implement. It is a simple breathing technique to use and easy to teach. The reason breathing techniques are helpful is that when anyone experiences anxiety, they are likely to experience rapid, short breathing which can cause someone to hyperventilate and ultimately make symptoms of anxiety worse. Like any breathing or relaxation techniques, this is best taught and practiced when in a state of relaxation.
The AnxietyBC website (https://www.anxietybc.com/) suggests using a cue word like “calm breathing” when teaching children breathing techniques. They offer a variety of suggestions on their site but the one I demonstrate in the video (starting at minute 9:45) is a bit different.
Let’s imagine that the child is holding a flower. They are going to take a big sniff of the flower, breathing in (inhaling) through their nose for 4 seconds and then wait 2 seconds before exhaling. Then let’s imagine the child is holding a birthday candle and they are going to breath out (exhale) through their mouth for 4 seconds. They will wait another 2 seconds before repeating. You can start by practicing smelling the flower and once they have that you can show them how to blow out the candle. When you are going to practice, cue the child by saying, “Let’s practice calm breathing.”
When in the learning phase, it would be best for children to practice this 2-3 times a day, with 10 breathing cycles each time. The excellent thing about this is that once mastered, children can use the skill without people noticing they are doing it. For some added fun, you can practice the skill by blowing bubbles and say, “We are going to practice calm breathing by blowing bubbles. We blow the bubbles long and slow so they don’t pop.”
Once your child can do the breathing in and out effectively, offer the cue when they seem worried or anxious. Don’t forget to practice regardless.
I hope you found some helpful tips here today. It’s a tricky time to be a parent and a child but we can navigate it together.