When the news of a threatening event, such as a hurricane or a terrorist attack receive widespread media coverage, it becomes virtually impossible to shield our children from learning about it. Some children are predisposed to anxious reactions and will fixate on any topic that implies danger to them and their loved ones. Others will only react strongly to a new unfamiliar situation. In any case, the parents play a pivotal role in mediating their children’s reactions and turning this event into a learning experience that will strengthen their child’s resilience to life’s adversities.
It is important to understand that in some cases, children do not even know what words such as “hurricane” or “tornado” mean to their personal lives. They figure it out from observing the world around them. If they hear the word in the news and conversations many times and notice that their parents react to it with worry and fear, they will realize that this is something very big and scary. While there is no reason to shield your children completely from the news, try to limit the number of times they are exposed to such information. In fact, it is a good idea to tell your child about the event and about how the family is going to prepare for it. It is better for children to hear this information from their parents, who can discuss it with them and address any feelings the child might have about it. It will also prepare the child for the actual experience, if they get exposed to it.
However, the most important thing the parents can do is to control their own emotional reaction. If a child sees a parent who is calm and confident while talking about or preparing for the anticipated event, they will feel safe and confident themselves. The parents need to show confidence that they can cope with their own and their children’s feelings in any new situation.
While some children will talk about their worries and ask many questions, others will not express it verbally, but might show their feelings through oppositional behavior, negative mood, or anxious acts such as being clingy to their parents, checking things over and over again, refusing to leave the house, etc. If the child talks openly about her fears, you can discuss what events might happen in your area and how you plan to cope with them. You can even practice some of the possible situations. For example, to show the child what it will be like without electricity, you might turn off the lights in one of the rooms and show them how you will use a flashlight and candles instead. You can also tell the child that this has already happened before and everything was okay. This preparation will inoculate the child in case they will be exposed to the actual experience and will make them feel prepared in anticipation of it.
It is very important to validate the child’s thoughts and feelings without trying to change them. Kids have the right to feel what they feel. Simply validating their feelings will have a great soothing effect. Do not try to talk them out of their feeling or make the feeling go away. Instead, teach them to tolerate their feelings. Then, try to normalize the child’s experience and reactions by saying that many kids and adults feel this way. Give examples from your own life of how you were afraid of something but were able to cope with your feelings. Give examples from the child’s life as well. Explain that what scares the child right now is just thoughts, and thoughts are not the truth, they are just ideas and images in our brain. You can practice successful coping by asking the child to close their eyes and imagine various situations related to the event and their calm reaction to them. For example: “ I hear about a hurricane and I feel calm”, “I feel strong winds and I feel calm”, “ I go to bed and I feel calm”, etc. Help them feel the calmness at the physical level, use their imagination. This exercise should be repeated 2-3 times a day. Each time acknowledge their success; comment on how you noticed that they looked much calmer and stayed in control much better. During this period it is a good idea to redirect the child’s attention by playing games, having fun and spending time together as a family.
These simple steps will give you and your child a sense of being in control and will build their ability to cope with other anxiety-provoking events in the future.
Dr. Tali Shenfield, PhD, C.Psych
Clinical Director of Child and Family Psychology Center