After distressing events in the US – such as what unfolded in Charlottesville – children and teens struggle to make sense of what occurred. Whether they admit it or not, children look to their parents to guide them through difficult times and restore meaning and normalcy to their lives. As a parent, it is essential to offer age-appropriate support and remain attuned to what your child needs.
Young children need help coping with events at a level they can manage
Although they may not fully grasp the full scope of events, they may still react to what they overhear. They may see snippets of fighting on TV, notice their family’s distress, or overhear other adults talking about what occurred. They may formulate their own (often inaccurate) assessment of events. Will the Nazis come and get us? Will there be riots near my school?
You need to provide simple, reassuring statements to calm any lurking anxiety – even if your child is not overtly expressing it. Look to see if he seems more withdrawn, if his play seems more ‘aggressive’, if he has trouble sleeping. Let him know that there was some protesting against some angry people (with beliefs that your family does not agree with), but that it is over now, and that no one is coming to your town or your house. If your child asks about the beliefs, you can simply say that these include believing that some people are not OK just because of their skin colour or religion – and that you don’t agree with that.
Help your older child or teen grapple with more complex emotions
Older children and teens may be much more aware of current events and able to express their anger or anxiety. Try to reassure your child that you will keep him safe, and that it is not likely that such an event will happen in your town. If your teen wants to participate in a vigil or anti-hate march, you can assess the potential safety of the event, and decide to accompany him as a family effort. You might also suggest other ways your child or teen can express frustration, such as letter-writing, contacting government representatives, or getting involved in volunteer work.
Many inquisitive teens want to understand the reasons for certain behaviours. They may pursue theories about the causes of racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry. Depending on their age and maturity, they may benefit from articles ranging from historical reviews of slavery and the Holocaust to the social psychology of racism to current trends in the rise of hate groups. While this research may quell their thirst for knowledge, it may create further anxiety and distress.
Model appropriate reactions
Even if you are distressed, try not to overreact in front of your child. State your opinions, but also your plan of action. You might mention that you plan to write letters, participate in a vigil, or increase your volunteer work. This demonstrates to your child that even when there are distressing national or world events, no one has to remain passive. We each can take charge, even in a small way. This may help your child feel less powerless, address any existential anxiety that may be developing, and provide an outlet for his fears.
Help your child find healthy distractions
Carry on as usual, and remind your child that it is OK to continue to work, study and play as always. If your child wants to get involved, help him investigate volunteer activities at school or in the community that might spark an interest. If your child is highly anxious about these events, and calming support and distractions fail, seeking the support of a licensed mental health counsellor may be beneficial.
You cannot shield your child from the distressing events in the news. But as a loving parent, you can provide a buffer, a resource, and a guide to help with the confusing, overwhelming emotions that follow.
Dr Gail Post is a clinical psychologist, in practice for over 30 years. She works with adolescents and adults.
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