Although we may try to shield our children from information that may be upsetting to them, inevitably, they will be exposed to life's challenges and painful realities. We live in the "information age" and children are often bombarded with news from the media that can be upsetting and overwhelming. Children are very aware of the emotions of the adults who care for them and they can quickly tune into the anxiety of their parents and teachers. When dangerous events occur in the world, adults also worry. Often we have not had enough time to deal with our own reactions by the time we are faced with pointed questions from our children. How can we respond to them in a way that is honest, age appropriate, and as reassuring as is possible?
In attempting to protect our children from frightening knowledge, we sometimes avoid sharing age-appropriate information with them. It is uncomfortable for parents to see their children upset and at times we are afraid to hear what is on their minds. If we don't talk to them about their concerns they "fill in the blanks" with their own theories and fantasies and these can be much more frightening than the reality.
Even when the world is not exploding with bad news, children can have anxious feelings and need reassurance and comfort from caring adults. Among the "normal" fears of preschool age children are monsters, ghosts, "bad guys," being alone, feeling helpless, and dying. Young children are "magical thinkers" and often confuse fantasy with reality. Their wishes are powerful and they believe that their thoughts, feelings, and words can make things happen. School age children are more concrete in their thoughts and fears. Often, they focus their worries on more realistic catastrophes: hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, illness, injury, and death. It is sometimes hard for parents and teachers to understand the source of a child's fear. Some children can tell us in words, but, with younger children we often must draw conclusions from observing a child at play or by his or her behavioral changes.
Healing often comes about through play as well. Play allows children to imagine, and while imagining, "try out" scary things in a safe environment. They take on new "roles" and allow their fantasies to determine what happens and how they feel as they face new and difficult scenarios. After 9/11, block corners became areas where children re-enacted the drama of buildings crashing down over and over again. When children who survived Hurricane Katrina were asked to draw houses, they often depicted people standing on roofs surrounded by water. A young child who is afraid of getting a shot at the doctor's office may be seen repeatedly "injecting" a doll or stuffed animal. Playing roles and reworking experiences allows children to gain mastery and control of their feelings.
Here are some strategies to help open the door to conversations with children about their fears:
- Take your child's response to frightening experiences seriously. Simply telling them "don't be afraid... don't worry about that" does not reassure them and closes the door to conversation
- Empathically acknowledge your child's feelings. "I see that you are frightened, I know that thunder scares you"
- Let your child's questions and concerns guide the conversation. This will help to clarify their understandings and misconceptions. "What have you heard about the earthquake?" "Do you know what the word 'dead' means?"
- When children ask difficult questions, don't avoid answering. "Lots of five year olds wonder about that. That's a really good question and a lot of grownups don't know what [that] feels like either"
- Share your feelings of sadness or anxiety in a calm and reassuring way while offering hope. "I was scared when I saw the pictures of the earthquake too, but we are lucky to be safe in our house… Lots of doctors are there to help the people who got hurt"
- Be truthful in answering questions and acknowledge honestly when their will be an impact on children. "Yes, Julie's mommy and daddy aren't going to live together anymore, but they both still love her very much. I think Julie will miss having them together"
- Listen to what your child is saying and make a connection between the feeling and the behavior. "You don't want to go to the doctor because you are afraid you will get a shot and, last time, it hurt you. This time you won't need a shot"
- Help children to minimize the degree of risk, but don't discount the feeling. "I know you are afraid the dog will bite you, but, first let's ask if he is a friendly dog. If you pet him on his back, not on his face, you will be safe"
- Help your child to find solutions to his or her fears. "I know that you don't like to go to sleep in the dark, let's think together of some ideas to make you feel safe"
- Let children know that they did not cause the problem. "It's not your fault that the hamster died. The vet tried her best but she couldn't make the hamster better"
- Provide children with opportunities to release tension and take a break from their feelings: sand, water, clay, paint are all good physical outlets
- Read books about common childhood fears and talk to your child about what the characters in the book are feeling
- Encourage children to talk about their feelings: share stories of when you were their age and had similar fears
- Give reassurance and physical comfort: young children need to know that they are safe and adults are there to take care of them
- Provide structure and stability: children need consistency and security, especially when life is at its most unpredictable
- Seek professional help if your child's fears persist and interfere with their day to day functioning
Children whose feelings are expressed and validated can be helped to cope with frightening fantasies and difficult realities. It can be hard, sometimes, for us to encourage children to speak about their worries and show their emotions. However, closing our eyes does not make the problems go away. Giving children permission to face their problems- and the tools with which to solve them- will help children become sturdy and resilient adults.