Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz, Psychologist in the Anxiety Program and Project Investigator at SickKids, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Child Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, answers some questions about the best way to educate kids while reducing their anxiety about traumatic world events.
1. How can parents and teachers educate kids about the news without scaring/worrying them?
Parents and teachers have a unique opportunity to be able to monitor the kinds of messages children receive, especially younger children, because parents and teachers spend most of a child’s waking hours with them. Given this opportunity, they can learn about what kids know about the particular news story (for example a natural disaster) and provide corrective feedback. Teachers can discuss how, for example, earthquakes develop and that in many parts of the world they are so tiny they may go unnoticed. Teachers can discuss what makes the geography in our part of the world different. Parents can also seek out reliable sources of information, and discuss the disaster in a way that is developmentally appropriate for their child.
2. During a natural disaster, should children be sheltered from all the media coverage?
Media coverage can provide useful and educational information, but overexposure to media coverage, notably very graphic images, can overwhelm and provoke feelings of vulnerability, anxiety and can evoke stress reactions in some children. Overexposure to media coverage can also raise questions of safety and security.
3. What factors affect a child’s reaction to media coverage?
Reactions vary for each child depending on a number of different factors. Some of these include: age, level of resilience, understanding of the information they have, the degree of exposure to coverage, whether they know anyone who could be affected, proximity of the event to where they live, any previous experience with a traumatic event, how others around them are responding, and their own coping strategies.
4. What are the signs that a child is experiencing stress and anxiety due to the disaster?
Very young children often have temper tantrums or become clingy to parents during these events. Both school-age children and teens may express more fear, anxiety, avoidance and sadness. They also may become irritable, exhibit behavioural difficulties, and/or express physical symptoms of distress such as stomachaches or headaches. Some children may resist attending school, have difficulty focusing or concentrating on their work and having trouble sleeping. Teens may also attempt to hide their distress, as they do not want to appear different from their peers. In general, with growing maturity, youth are more likely to exhibit signs of distress that are similar to adults.
5. What should parents do to reduce a child’s disaster anxiety?
First and foremost, a parent needs to know what information the child has in order to determine the degree of accuracy of the information. Listening to what the child is saying and providing corrective feedback can go a long way in alleviating a child’s fears. Providing information on what a disaster is, why it happened, and what people are doing to help is often a next good step. It’s important to remind the child that they are safe and you are there to help support them. Helping the child talk about the disaster and expressing their feelings – when they are ready and without the parent becoming upset –is also important. Maintaining regular routines and engaging in family activities all contribute to lowering a child’s fears and anxiety during these times.
6. Are there lessons parents and teachers can teach their children about the crises around the world?
Facts, trust, support and good stress management skills are key foundations for coping with disasters. Parents and teachers are in unique roles to positively influence the responses of children when disaster strikes. They need to be alert to their own reactions and model good coping for the children. Being alert, supportive and sensitive to children and youth during these times will enhance the potential for coping more effectively when disaster strikes.