Ongoing current events are causing undue amounts to stress and fear in our children. How to we combat it?
My son came home from high school on Wednesday and told me about a kid who blew himself up with a bomb. I asked where he’d heard this and he said everyone was talking about it. It was on the BBC. I hadn’t heard anything about a kid blowing himself up with a bomb, but I certainly needed to so I could understand what daily craziness my son was focused on. I did a quick Google search and sure enough, that morning, in Russia, a 17-year-old college student walked into an FSB office (a branch of the Russian military that is responsible for internal security), pulled a bomb out of his backpack and it exploded, killing him and injuring several others. Wow – I had no idea.
Frankly, there is a lot of scary stuff going on in our world today, much of it in our own backyard. Last week alone there were two people shot in Kentucky and it’s being investigated as a hate crime. Twelve pipe bombs were sent to former presidents, prominent politicians and news media. Eleven people were gunned down at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday and now we’re moving as many as 15-thousand troops to our southern border to stop a caravan of men, women and children from crossing our border.
But here’s the dilemma, just because our children don’t come home and talk to us about what they hear at school, from their friends, on the news, in social media, etc. doesn’t mean they don’t hear this stuff – and it may stress them out, increase their levels of anxiety and might cause them to have irrational fears about their own safety. Our job as parents is to help them deal with their fears, anxiety and stress logically, rationally and with compassion. Sometimes we have to frame current events and give them perspective – if for no other reason than, we have the ability to do that as adults and our kids might not yet have that skill.
Stress is considered toxic when a person experiences strong, frequent or prolonged adversity. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child says, “short-lived stress responses in the body can promote growth, toxic stress is the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system in the absence of protective adult support. Without caring adults to buffer children (this is especially true for very young children but it impacts our older children as well), unrelenting stress … can weaken the architecture of the developing brain, with long-term consequences for learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.” Bottom line, we need to help our children deal with the stresses they are experiencing, whether is it emotional and related to personal trauma, school work, friendships or current events.
Fear can be a good thing. When we feel fear, our body releases hormones that prepare us for dangerous situations. We slow or shut down functions that are not needed for survival (such as our digestive system) and our body naturally sharpens functions that help us survive (such as eyesight and increased heart rate – which makes blood flow to our muscles so we can run faster). Our bodies also send hormones to the amygdala. That helps us focus on the danger at hand and store it in our memory. The problem is when we are in a state of chronic fear.
Living with chronic fear can cause serious health consequences. The University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing published an article entitled Impact of Fear and Anxiety. The article states that chronic fear impacts our bodies in the following ways:
- Physical health. Fear weakens our immune system and can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome, and decreased fertility. It can lead to accelerated ageing and even premature death.
- Memory. Fear can impair formation of long-term memories and cause damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus. This can make it even more difficult to regulate fear and can leave a person anxious most of the time. To someone in chronic fear, the world looks scary and their memories confirm that.
- Brain processing and reactivity. Fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically. This impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions. All of these effects can leave us unable to act appropriately.
- Mental health. Other consequences of long-term fear include fatigue, clinical depression and PTSD.
My concern is two-fold 1) our world has gone a bit wonky in the last few years. The climate is more erratic and there is political upheaval in many countries. Unfortunately, and whether we realize it or not, our children often hear about these events and it impacts them. 2) When our children hear about some of the things going on in our world, we need to understand how they internalize it. Do they feel personally threatened? Are they afraid? Does hearing about current events increase their levels of stress? My guess is yes and we need to be mindful of not only theirs, but our own.
It’s hard to know how to talk with our children about scary current events – some of it is hard to process even as adults so imagine how traumatizing it might be for our children. As difficult and terrifying as it is to discuss these things with our children, it’s important.
I read a great article written by the Jewish Social Service Agency entitled Discussing Frightening Current Events with Your Children, The article outlined some tips that were the best I’ve seen on this topic:
- Recognize your own feelings about the situation.
First, identify and separate your feelings from your child’s. Children can pick up on their parents’ mood, so try to keep yourself calm.
- Gauge your child’s knowledge of the event.
Before delving into a lengthy explanation, first ask your child what he or she knows about the current event. Use open-ended questions, such as “What have you heard about what is going on in the news?”, “What questions do you have?”, and “What worries you?” When responding to a child’s questions, only answer what they have specifically asked. There is no need to elaborate.
- Know your child.
Some children will want to talk and analyze recent events. Some children may only have one question, and some may not want to talk at all. Be respectful of what your child needs from you. This includes communicating at your child’s level of understanding. Over time, watch for any significant changes in a child’s sleeping and eating patterns or mood. These changes may signal emotional issues like anxiety or depression that need attention. If you notice these signs, you may consider seeking the help of a professional, such as a pediatrician, social worker, or psychologist.
- It’s OK to say “I don’t know.”
Children may believe that their parents can answer all of their questions, but that, of course, is an unrealistic expectation for them and for you. If you don’t know an answer, it is OK to say so.
- Monitor TV viewing and media consumption.
*Paraphrased to deal with more current events. Media coverage is often very heavy and filled with details of hate crimes, mass shootings, terrorism, government unrest, war, natural disasters and other difficult topics on a daily basis. Certain dialogue, images, and themes may be troubling for your child to hear or see. Be aware of the information children are receiving. Limit their exposure to information you consider inappropriate or unnecessary for them. Don’t be afraid to turn off the TV or the computer.
- Find teachable moments in current events.
Current events provide opportunities to discuss your family’s values. You may feel uneasy answering tough questions, but questions like these can lead into discussions about tolerance vs. hatred, good vs. evil, and performing individual and community-wide acts of caring and service.
And I would add, when you talk to your kids, focus on the positives of different current events, and emphasize the ways you and your kids can help. If you’re talking to your children about natural disasters and the thousands of people struggling to rebuild their lives, talk about how your family can provide aid – and do it! The world is a scary place right now and bad things happen to good people every day but the good news is, a safer, happier, better future lies in the hands of our kids’ generation. When you have these difficult conversations, the best thing you can do is promote public service, compassion, tolerance and generosity so that your kiddos will take their desire to make the world a better place into the future.
And finally, when you are ready to go explore that great big world with your family, please schedule a 30-minute Discovery Session with me at www.calendly.com/bambi. I’d LOVE to help!
All my best,
Bambi Wineland is the mother of two internationally adopted children, a traveler, a Certified Professional Coach, and the Founder and CEO of Motherland Travel. Motherland Travel began by designing Heritage Journeys for families with internationally adopted children. The emphasis of those Heritage Journeys has always been on deepening family connections, building self-esteem and cultivating pride in a family’s multi-cultural heritage. Motherland Travel also uses the philosophies of transformative Travel for designing family trips with purpose – building rich connections, with each other and the world! Read more about her here >> http://motherlandtravel.com/