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My child worries excessively. All the bad news on television and other media keeps her upset constantly. Just this past week she asked her father to buy a Geiger counter so we could see if our home was radioactive. What should we say and do to help her calm down a bit?
This is an excellent and timely question. Some children (and adults) are more sensitive to events and circumstances than others. It’s a safe bet, however, that trouble, threat and difficulty aren’t going to go away, so it helps to soothe and fortify our children when and where we can.
Worry and concern are nothing new. When our parents and grandparents were young, they worried that the Japanese would attack the west coast. In fact, there was conjecture that an attack could reach as far as Chicago. Then, after the Korean Conflict, we focused on the Russians and the atomic bomb. I can still remember the A-bomb drills in elementary school. (Does anyone remember the slogan, “When you see the flash, DUCK and COVER!”) Businesses selling family fallout shelters you could bury in your back yard seemed to spring up overnight. From earthquakes and runaway nuclear reactors to idiots bringing guns to school and using them, trouble and threat stoke enough fear to upset anyone.
We can’t shelter and shield our children from every shred of news they encounter, nor should we. But we can offer them clarification and support.
Here are a few suggestions in response to this mother’s timely and concern-laden question.
— Always remember, kids personalize EVERYTHING. That’s just the way they are. When a child expresses empathy for the children victimized by the earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear threats, a deeper message could well be, “What if that had happened to ME?” Although their benevolence and concerns for others are genuine, their more troubled thoughts are often much closer to home.
— Don’t minimize their worries or their feelings. Saying, “Now don’t you worry about that!” doesn’t make worry go away. Often it only causes a child to feel foolish for experiencing a valid emotion: fear. It’s better to say something like, “I understand your concern; can I help you with that?”
— Clarify the facts. When kids don’t have good facts, they make up their own, and they’re usually more dismal than the truth. A child growing up in Kansas might fret about tornados, but she can be shown how a tsunami isn’t very likely at all, or how thousands of miles of ocean protect us pretty well from the reactor problems in northern Japan. (It would help to let her reinforce this conclusion by showing her a globe or a world map.)
— Offer soothing and support through family rituals. Hug them more, touch them often and keep a dialog open. I can still remember warmly my parents or my grandmother sitting with me as I said my bedtime prayers. Those were special moments; they made (and still make) a difference.
— Suggest how they might help. Doing something no only helps others, but it offers a sense of control over worry and concern. A child could be encouraged to collect aluminum cans with proceeds going to Red Cross assistance in recovery. Better yet, the youngster could get friends involved, adding to the effort.
(Back in the days of the A-bomb scare, my father was a Civil Defense Block Warden. He went to meetings, attended first-aid classes and stayed prepared, just in case. I can’t tell you how many “pretend” head injuries and broken arms my sister and I sustained for the cause. Bottom line: Dad felt better when he could DO something. It’s the same with our children.)
— Remain observant. Note any changes in eating or sleeping patterns, or continuing signs of excessive stress or anxiety. Note also if the child has more difficulty than usual handling everyday frustration. Monitor performance and grades at school, also.
— Seek assistance, if needed. Although a child’s parents should a first-line resource for help and comforting, it’s possible the parents could feel overwhelmed in the effort. Input from others, such as the school counselor or a family’s pastor, could prove helpful. ###
Psychologist Dr. James Sutton is the founder and host of The Changing Behavior Network.