Christie Anne Luibrand, MSW, LISW, offers four strategies parents can use when their children are overwhelmed by what's happening in the world.
More than ever before, children and teenagers hear about what is going on in the world. Whether through social media, friends, television, the Internet, or adults’ conversations. At times, this can be a positive thing. They may hear of uplifting stories, or ways their communities are making positive changes. Other times, children and teens may be exposed to topics that are scary. Whether it is fighting overseas, natural disasters, global pandemics, or political unrest, many young people struggle to make sense of what is happening and adults’ reactions. Therefore, it is important for parents and caregivers to protect young people, help them process, and take action.
While there are many steps a caregiver can take, this will vary based on age. What does not vary, however, is limiting exposure to breaking news. A parent may not be able to control what information the child receives, but they can control the amount of information that child is receiving. When the television or radio is left on in the background all day with information about an event or topic, toddlers and school-aged children often believe that those events are ongoing and may become anxious. Help your child understand that many events are temporary or will come to an end. Adults should also feel enabled to limit teenagers' exposure to these things as well, establishing rules for social media and internet usage.
If an adult does have the news on, it is important that they are present with children and can explain any concerns or answer any questions they may have. Often, children may not understand context, or they have seen misinformation online or through friends. Being present allows for discussion and explanations. If a young person asks a question that the adult is unsure of how to answer, it is reasonable to tell them, “I don’t know.” Adults do not always have the answers. This can be an opportunity for an adult caregiver and their child to seek information together, or to continue conversation at a different time. “I am not sure; let me think about that and we can talk about it another time,” is another acceptable response.
Children and teenagers often look to adults in their lives for reassurance during times of uncertainty. Do not discuss your anxieties or anger with your children or when they are around. While parents are human and allowed to have strong feelings, giving your child a sense of calm and safety in the moment is important. When the children are not around, an adult can reach out to a friend or other support person to process on their own. Be aware of tone of voice, and make your child feel safe. All children will benefit from routines, listening ears, or reassuring hugs. You know how your child feels the most safe and loved -- offer that.
Every child responds to traumatic or stressful events differently, so parents and caregivers should take time to listen and observe them. Young children often lack communication skills necessary to verbalize how they are feeling or affected by events in their lives. Research indicates that they often communicate these things through their play instead. In fact, there is a whole branch of therapy known as play therapy which uses play to help children process their thoughts and feelings!
When the pandemic first hit in 2020 and we went under lockdown, my 2-year-old began to play doctor more often and talk about people being sick. Her dolls were sick and she needed to take care of them; she needed to give me a checkup, and she would ask for band-aids to help “boo boos.” I wasn’t alone in this. Many of my mom friends reported the same to me, as well as clinician friends. It is not that those young children understood what the global pandemic meant. Rather, they knew that their lives looked different. They were being told to wear masks, wash hands, and that places they recently frequented were closed. They may have even overheard parents discussing the pandemic.
When this play occurred, it provided opportunities for me to discuss illness, germs, safety, and social skills such as coughing into elbows. Some of those were also done through play with her! Use dolls to act things out (such as washing their hands), play along with them, and provide instruction as necessary. Libraries often have books that discuss important life skills, find them and read them together.
Older children and teenagers do have the ability to process, and so the best thing a parent or caregiver can do is ask how they are feeling. “What have you heard?” and “How are you feeling?” are great starting points. Allow time for your children to respond without interruption or emotional response. Debunk any myths they have heard, and make a plan with them for how they can cope and move forward. Make a plan to relax together, either through watching a favorite movie, having a night at home to paint each other’s nails, or baking together. Do some deep breathing with them, color with them, or go for a walk or play catch. All of these are easy ways to deal with anxiety and spend time together. Distraction provides a sense of normalcy. Continue to check in as needed.
Simple acknowledgement of feeling is often the best thing a parent can do. Rather than telling a child, “Don’t worry,” it is helpful to tell them, “I can see you are worried/sad/angry/scared.” Often they want to know that their feelings are heard and valid, and they don’t always need anything more than that. If feelings are brushed aside, they may not share in the future. Alternatively, if a child does not seem affected by a current event, don’t press the issue. Everyone processes information differently, and if they are not experiencing “big feelings” let them continue on!
Look for the Helpers, and Become the Helpers
Fred Rogers once said that when scary things were in the news, his mother would tell him to, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This a great outlook to incorporate with the other steps mentioned above. Share with your families how people are taking action and helping one another. Watch and enjoy “good news” with one another to keep hope alive. When children and teens see that people are working toward a common goal or to make things right, it can bring a sense of relief.
Finally, become the helpers. Bring young children with you as you shop for and drop off food donations. Make care packages together as a family. Attend peaceful protests together. Help them write to local politicians. Pray together, or attend a special Mass or prayer service as a group. Observing parents take action is often just as important as them doing it themselves. When children learn that you can take strong emotions and channel them into positive change, it teaches them an important life skill.
If you have taken all of these steps and your children seem to be struggling with their thoughts and feelings beyond what you feel comfortable in providing help for, never fear asking for help. You may search for a therapist through Psychology Today or Catholic Therapists.
The world can be a big and scary place. Throughout their lifetimes, young people may be exposed to many events through a multitude of sources. As parents or caregivers it is important to not only protect them but to help them process, discuss events in an age appropriate manner, and to utilize coping skills. Teaching children how to take any anxiety or frustration they may be feeling and turn it into positive change is another way parents can help. After all, we are raising the next generation of “helpers.”
Copyright 2021 Christie Anne Luibrand, MSW, LISW
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About the Author
Christie Luibrand, MSW, LISW is a therapist turned stay-at-home mom with two little ones. She blogs at Her Daily Fiat where she writes about motherhood, faith, and wellness.