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How To Effectively Explain World Events To Your Child - By Chris Gearing

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

With the tsunamis in Japan and the bombings in Libya, American children are witnessing images of tragic events across the globe.

So how aware are children of these tragic events?

Even though an ocean away, today’s child is more media savvy and more aware of tragic events than any of us wants to believe. These images of tsunamis and bombings, if too frequent and too vivid, feed the anxiety and can be highly disruptive for a child. Children lack the cognitive and emotional skills to regain perspective. But instead of telling you they’re worried, they often prefer to dwell on these events in their minds privately.

Parents need to remember that kids are also more anxious than previous generations and separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety are increasingly prevalent in kids.

Studies of over 12,000 kids show that anxiety has increased substantially among children over the last forty years. The average American child in the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s.

Keep in mind that younger kids cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined and what is currently happening and what is in the past. They look at things literally, as if they are happening right now. We know that traumatic events that are directly experienced or indirectly witnessed (like watching repeated images of the tsunamis) have a much more profound effect on young kids than on older children. Younger kids who experience trauma are at particular risk because of their rapidly developing brains—they just cannot process the world as logically as teens and adults.

After trauma, kids can have compromised language, memory issues, processing difficulties and emotional regulation problems. They cannot use words effectively to deal with the stress and may even magically blame themselves for the misfortune. They may become more sensitive to frightening visual images, loud noises, violent scenes and unpredictable events.

In addition, horrific scenes can impact a child at a fundamental level through a phenomenon called secondary trauma. Trauma indirectly experienced through a firsthand account or narrative of a traumatic event, can impact them deeply and their anxiety can increase. The brain does not differentiate between what is real and what is imagined, especially in children. The world suddenly doesn’t feel safe anymore. If you are anxious, you are going to dwell on the predictability of future danger so these vivid images stoke the “fires” of loss of control and imminent harm.

So if you are a worried parent, look for an increased needs for reassurance, intrusive repetitive worrying and thoughts, refusal to take appropriate risks or tackle age appropriate challenges, obsession with frightening natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, nightmares and clinging behavior.

Anytime your child experiences strong negative emotions, you need to view this as a prime opportunity to teach them about emotion and how to handle themselves when they’re upset.

Acknowledge the child’s distress through careful listening and empathy. Recognize his fear and reassure the child that he is just fine.

Most of all, teach your child how to calm down since the ability to self soothe is a key to handling himself in the world. Remaining calm when there is adversity is valuable in remaining obedient in the classroom, making friends and following directions at home.

Ground Them in Reality by reminding them that they are safe and protected. However, this is also a great opportunity to demonstrate empathy by looking for online or community activities that can help these countries work through a difficult time. Being a good citizen in the world is as important as being a good person at home.


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