dealing with childstress from recent world events

help for grown ups

The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were deeply shocking and distressing to most adults watching on television. Parents and teachers alike became concerned as to how our children were taking in these events.
The media is currently covering the bombing of Afghanistan and the desperate state of the refugees, and here again we have questions and worries about what the children make of it all. It is likely that our children will have witnessed something of the news, whatever their ages and will have been carefully studying and absorbing adults reactions. This page will give you some guidelines on how to approach the subject, what signs of stress to look out for and what you can do.

ages and stages

3-5 years

At this stage, children may have been exposed to television coverage, but may not know how to make sense of it. They may be able to understand scenes of people's emotional responses e.g. crying or screaming and sad faces.

Explain what they have seen in simple terms e.g. "that lady is sad because she hasn't got any food to eat" and then give them a remedy "some other people are coming to give her some".

Be aware of having the television on whilst they are around. At the moment there is a possibility that daytime news may contain confusing pictures.

Watch your own responses - the younger the child the more he or she is picking up your upset and worry. If necessary, try to get your "news fix" away from them, - or through newspapers.

Reassure them that you are keeping them safe - if they seem stressed, offer more cuddles and point them towards reliable, comforting aspects of life e.g. food, favourite toys and daily routines.

5-7 years

Children who have begun school will be more aware of the news, and may get worrying ideas from others in the playground.

Before offering any explanations, find out what they know already.

Answer the questions they ask - and then stop! At this age children are most likely to want to know if any of these events will affect them - so keep it personal e.g. "we will be alright in our house because Mummy and Daddy will keep it safe for you" or (pointing at the dog) "look, Barney doesn't seem too worried".

Don't worry about "disaster play" e.g. building two Lego towers or crashing toy planes and cars. This is a safe outlet for worries through symbolic play and can help your child to process their feelings - perhaps without the need to talk about it.

Older children may be trying to understand the conflict by dividing the world into "goodies" and "baddies". It is worth trying to help them understand how everyone can get cross if someone else takes their things or doesn't understand them, like when this happens at school. This is not to justify any of the gestures of violence but to begin to help them towards grasping a little of the complexities and also to avoid racist associations being set up.

7-11 years

This is the stage when children are more able to use their reasoning abilities and may want to be given more logical explanations for world events. As in the previous stage, find out what they know first e.g. ask "how would you describe what's going on ?"

Answer the questions honestly and calmly.

Acknowledge their confused or worried feelings - don't say "don't be silly,it's highly unlikely to affect us".

Check what their friends are saying - at this stage children have very strong and defined opinions about everything! Misleading information at school can be taken as "really true!"

Suggest practical responses e.g. giving or raising money for aid agencies.

From 8 years onward, children are learning they can have "private" thoughts which is appropriate. They may be processing things firstly, "in my head" and secondly, with peers, more than talking to you.

Encourage talking by being a good listener. Let your child repeat their ideas and questions - he or she may need several discussions to feel satisfied.

stress that needs attention

Look out for:

Fear of going to school - not wanting to leave home, or family.

Anger, irritability that seems unconnected or out of character.

Blankness, or appearance of being preoccupied.

Nightmares, night terrors, bedwetting returning.

Fears of related things or places e.g. tall buildings, planes overhead, lifts, city centres.

Regression (acting much younger) - needing more cuddles, teddies taken to bed again, altered sleep or eating patterns.

Talking about the news excessively (this is a tricky one - because children will need to repeat their thoughts and questions over and over again.) The clue is that the talking doesn't bring any relief to the worries.

Body responses - headaches, tummy aches etc (possibly linked to worries about disease warfare).

What you can do:

Reassurance - verbally - reasoning it through, if age appropriate offer lots of assurances of safety and protection physically - more hugs and cuddles, comforting food, longer "play baths".

Allow them time to talk - and to repeat questions if they have to.

Don't dismiss worries about imagined disasters. Say "Yes, that is a worrying thought" (You aren't confirming the worry, you're confirming the feeling).

Focus on the here and now - the fact that you are safe in your room, your bed and that favourite toys and treasures are all there.

Focus on people who are around to caretake - family, grandparents, teachers.

Suggest drawing pictures or writing a letter about what's on his or her mind - use it as a talking point.

Put little notes in a lunchbox - letting your child know what you are doing when they are at school. Drop in a good joke, or a cartoon.

Tell them about practical changes the family have made to be safe e.g. cancelling overseas flights.

Use ritual words or prayers to "send good thoughts" to those suffering.

If a child seems worried but is not saying anything - try asking gently if they have been bothered by the news recently. Explain that some people have trouble getting it out of their heads because it's so hard to understand.

If you have serious concerns, check them out with your partner or a friend, and the child's teacher, then consult your GP about getting some professional help .

Much of general stress can be helped by offering a quick stress reliever - matched to the individual's typical coping style.
If you want to find out what stress type your child is so you can help them BEAT stress click here do you worry?