In the past few weeks we have been watching the disastrous events in Japan and now war in Libya. It’s difficult as adults not to be affected by these graphic images on television and the web. But, how do children cope with such news?
I remember being ten years old and watching the nuclear holocaust movie, The Day After, on TV. People incinerated while buying groceries. That night, I lay in bed convinced that I would soon die in a nuclear attack. Now, wanting to protect my own children from such anxiety, I spoke with Dr. Annie Thiel, a Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist, who specializes in Marriage and Family Counseling, about how to best help children cope and understand tragic events.
“It begins with the parents,” Dr. Thiel says. “One of the most important factors in helping children manage a stressful situation event is the way that the parents react. The way the parents react, the children will react.” Dr. Thiel shared the story of her daughter, Nancy, who was involved in a traffic accident: her SUV rolled over, with her and her children inside. Upside down in the car, Nancy was able to maintain a sense of calm and communicate in a positive manner. “I feel like a monkey hanging upside down,” Nancy said. Her children were delighted by this analogy and were therefore able to crawl out of the vehicle without panic.
As Dr. Thiel spoke, I wondered if I would be able to maintain such composure in a similar situation. I freak out on a good morning when we are late for the school bus.
“Parents need to model strength and stability,” Dr. Thiel says. “Rushing out to buy potassium iodine is not the solution. This is passing hysteria onto the children.” The reaction to such an event needs to be reassuring and calm. Depending on the child’s age, it would be appropriate to point out where Japan is on a globe or map and explain that what has occurred is happening “there not here.” Then, one can turn the concern for the situation into empathy. Parents can help children write a letter to people in Japan, organize a collection for supplies, or make a donation to an organization such as Doctors Without Borders. This sends the message to the child that “here’s a problem, let’s help.” Channeling energy into a positive modality will help diminish fear and anxiety.
Dr. Thiel also feels very strongly that it is a parent’s job to monitor what children are allowed to watch on TV or the Internet. Graphic images of the disaster are not appropriate for young children. You can’t protect what children will hear at school or outside of the home: however, inside the home it is important to be sensitive to what children watch in terms of disaster coverage on TV. “It’s something that can and should be controlled. In fact, it’s part of our parental responsibility.”
I thanked Dr. Thiel for her time and her message became clear. As a parent I have to fake it till I make it. Even if the bombing in Libya and the nuclear reactors in Japan rattle my nerves, I need to be a role model of calm in the storm. Love it or hate it, it’s part of the job in parenting. And sorry, Mom, but I shouldn’t have been allowed to watch The Day After.