Whether children hear the news directly or feel the impact of heightened strain through other people, they look to the adults around them to help make sense of their feelings and thoughts. With some thoughtful steps, we can support both ourselves and the children we care for to better manage the impact of the news and avoid being overwhelmed.
Here are seven tips and encouragements for adults who are supporting children through this time:
Creating opportunities for children to express emotions and ask questions can help them sort through the information they may be picking up. Let children take the lead in terms of what they need to talk about, and ask some curious questions.
What are they hearing? What are they wondering? What kind of feelings are they having? You don’t have to have all the answers, but being curious and accepting of their questions can help create a sense that they’re not alone in their thoughts and feelings.
In times of worry or fear, your grounded and attentive presence is more important than big answers.
Your presence and attention are key.
In times of worry or fear, your grounded and attentive presence is more important than big answers. You can strengthen this nonverbally by tuning in to the child’s facial expressions. Notice their body language, and consider your own by thinking about what helps you feel solid and grounded while you listen. Listen to more than words, and listen with more than your ears.
Acknowledge emotions and worries with age-appropriate information.
Young children might not even know about world events, but they do pick up on emotions and may use their imagination to fill in the story of what’s happening. It is okay to protect and buffer them from some of the harsh realities of life, but keep in mind they absorb what’s around them. Their emotions may come out in physical and behavioural responses, such as stomachaches or anxious reactions.
Remember that school-aged children talk with other kids and hear things from adults. Older youth may be discussing world events in their classrooms, as well as with their peers. And many families around the world have direct connections to what is happening in Ukraine and other places.
Validating emotions without needing to explain everything is an important initial step for helping children make sense of whatever they’re feeling. With older children and youth, it might be useful to talk to them about the social and political issues surrounding these events. The key is to know your child and create space for them to turn toward their emotions without amplifying them. Then be supportive by shifting their attention toward a sense of safety and security.
Validating emotions without needing to explain everything is an important initial step for helping children make sense of whatever they’re feeling.
Honesty is helpful.
Be careful of false reassurances: “Nothing bad will happen here, our family will always be safe.” We may want to say that, but how can we know it’s true? Honesty coupled with a sense of solid support actually builds a bigger capacity to tolerate difficult emotions: “I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Whatever happens, we will figure it out together, and I’ll take care of you.”
You may be experiencing your own big feelings, worries, and grief related to current events. Allowing children to see your authentic emotions and how you make sense of them also creates stronger skills for identifying and understanding the vast range of feelings we all can have.
Monitor social media use.
Today’s world provides us with information 24/7. It can be a tremendous gift and wonderful tool, but it can also be trouble. In cases of tragic events, children and youth can be overwhelmed by the amount of information they are exposed to (this is true for adults as well).
Make sure you and the children in your care take breaks from the constant barrage of information. Become discerning consumers of news stories by talking about the information with children and youth to help them know what is real, what is sensationalized, and when it’s time to turn it off or turn away.
Take care of yourself.
Tragedies can threaten our sense of safety and well-being. Maintaining your own mental health is crucial, so self-care should become a priority. Talk to others, and set aside a time and place away from your children to feel afraid and worried.
Also practice self-care with your children. Do activities that help you slow down and connect to what is nurturing and soothing. Also engage with activities that help release big emotions – loud music, active games, and expressing things creatively can all help.
Make sure you and the children in your care take breaks from the constant barrage of information.
Connect with positive actions.
Crises like the war in Ukraine can stop us in our tracks. They remind us of our mortality and of the changing nature of the world we live in. Yet we cannot allow our whole lives to be defined by the fear that may be generated. We need to continue to help our children (and ourselves) enjoy life and feel like we can affect change in our world. Staying connected to friends and family, engaging in school and extracurricular activities, and planning for the future are a few ways we can continue to enjoy and engage with life.
Focusing time and energy on positive actions in response to current events can underline the message that we all have a role to play in creating a world we want to live in. Crafting messages of support, expressing gratitude and appreciation within our relationships, and volunteering to help others in need are just a few possibilities of actions that connect to positive values we hope to promote and strengthen.
These are challenging times. Anxiety, worry, and grief are natural responses to tragic events. When we create a space in our relationships that is big enough for all of these feelings – as well as our hopes and beliefs about a more positive future – we support ourselves and our children to get through this together.
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