Traumatic experiences are in the headlines almost daily. It’s hard to not see it. Unfortunately, our kids see it too, and they don’t have the same reasoning abilities that adults do to understand, or not be overly scared about the things that happen. How do we strike a balance between letting our kids know and shielding them from the realities of our country and the world? How do we do that for ourselves? We have many skills in managing anxiety that may help. They are in categories of distraction, management of physical symptoms and thinking properly about the situation.
Distraction – this is more than just turning our eyes away from something and not thinking about it. It helps us have a manageable “bite” of what is going on. This might come in the form of putting down your phone or turning off the TV, it might be taking a few deep breaths, or it might just be focusing your thoughts on something else for a while. We can still think and do something about upsetting events even if we don’t constantly get the news, or are constantly talking about it.
Managing Physical Symptoms– when you feel your heart starting to pick up speed, or your breaths get more shallow, it’s time for some management. You will need to consciously take deeper breaths and exhale deeply, as well. This will help both your heart and your breathing. The idea is this: in order for your brain to function well, it needs oxygen. It needs other things too, but it needs the oxygen that we take in to be able to clearly think. The more oxygen you give it, the better it can perform for you. The more deeply you breathe, the better opportunity you give your brain to think of other options, be able to access things you know and commit them to memory.
Thinking Properly About the Situation – There are awful things that have happened all over the world, and we seem to get instant and constant information about it. If you are a “news junkie” you might consider how long you have been watching/reading and see if you have learned anything new in the last few minutes. If not, it’s time to give it a rest. Repetition is only going to cement it into your memory. Take a break, remember that you are safe in your own home and in your own location. Take some time to think about what you have seen and maybe pray about the situation.
Our kids need the same kind of help. Each parent needs to manage the amount of content their children see, the things they are thinking about them and if there are any negative symptoms after having seen or heard about terrible things. If your child develops nightmares or fears based on hearing about an event, then maybe they need to talk about it more with you. They might not be ready to hear about these kinds of news events. Remind your children that they are safe, remind them that you will always protect them, and remind them what we learned from Mr. Rogers – to always look for the helpers and see the good things that people are doing to make the situation better.
You will need to be available for your kids to answer other questions they may have. Teenagers usually have some understanding based on what they are learning about the event from school, but may need some guidance in how to proceed or integrate what they know. Elementary kids may need to do something to feel like they helped; like write a note, or draw a picture for one of the helpers. Middle school students probably need a mix of both. Again, it depends on your children, their maturity and the amount of exposure they have had to the event. Families can use these kinds of situations as a time to come together and discuss what happened. Talk about the issues that the situation brings up that relate to what they are learning. Is it about obeying the law? Is it about accepting someone that is different? Is it about different beliefs that people have? Use the events to start talking to your kids about important character development and behavioral implications of the tragedy around them. Who knows, maybe your child is the next first responder or news anchor who will be the helpers in future situations.
Stephanie Hamann, BS, MA, NCC, LPC – is a seasoned therapist with a particular passion for working with children and adolescents. She has been an anchor for the Center for Human Development staff since 2004. She reflects that “What I enjoy most about being a therapist is to see people gain new skills or understanding and move forward in life in a positive direction.” Read more about Stephanie on her bio page, click here.