Covid-19 has been a defining catastrophe for countless childhoods. Even so, the endless news cycle of tragic events never stops, and parents are left to wonder how any number of upsetting circumstances are affecting their kids.
As pediatricians dedicate more and more of their working lives to emotional and behavioral wellness in their patients, we would like to offer some advice for discussing tragedies—such as war, weather-related disasters, crime/violence, or accidents—with children and adolescents.
- ASK WHAT YOUR CHILD ALREADY THINKS AND FEELS. For parents, the most stressful part of addressing disasters is the uncertainty about how much their child already knows. We don’t want to overshare and risk further upset. Simply ask. Let them know there is no right or wrong answer, you just want to see how much information they already have and how they’re feeling. From there, you have an opportunity to answer questions or possibly correct false/exaggerated statements they’ve picked up.
- ACKNOWLEDGE THAT ADULTS ARE CONFUSED TOO. Young children in particular may see adults as all-knowing, but this is a recipe for confusion as adults are constantly sharing conflicting views or news that’s still unfolding. Adults usually don’t know exactly how or why something has happened, and reminding kids of this fact can alleviate some anxiety that they’re “in the dark.”
- PROVIDE HONEST REASSURANCE. Depending on the topic, provide age-appropriate facts and comfort. If your child is upset by conflict abroad, talk about the people providing emergency relief. Perhaps there was a recent break-in in your community—let your child know that you double-check the locks every night and your neighbors are looking out for one another. Try not to worry about the “perfect” response OR assigning blame to a particular person, group, or cause. There may be a responsible party, but fixating on an enemy can be counterproductive to stress relief.
- AVOID GRAPHIC AND REPEAT EXPOSURE. It’s probably obvious that young children don’t need to see frightening images or hear repetitive news coverage. Around older kids, allow peaceful moments to be exactly that. Even though most teens have unfettered access to news, a family dinner may not be the time to bring up current events (unless they want to talk about a particular issue). Make an effort to let serious discussions and relaxing quality time exist separately.
- SEEK ADDITIONAL SUPPORT IF NEEDED. If you suspect your child is feeling especially anxious, depressed, or obsessive, there’s nothing wrong with getting a professional opinion. “Every clinician at One Pediatrics has stepped up to the plate to address our patients’ emotional well-being, more than ever in the last couple years,” says Dr. Eliot Thompson at Springs Pediatrics. “We see and hear the same news as you, and worry for how it reaches our loved ones. We’re here to listen and find next steps without judgment.”
Take note of changes that may indicate higher levels of stress, including sleep issues (nightmares, insomnia, excessive tiredness), changes in appetite, headaches, clinginess or regressive behavior in small children, irritability, obsessiveness, or unhealthy coping/“distractions” in adolescents. Each of these behaviors could have a clear developmental explanation, but your pediatrician can look at the complete picture and monitor these changes for red flags.
- PREPARE FOR FEELINGS TO CHANGE. Remember that these conversations will evolve because the news changes rapidly and each day is a new opportunity for kids to be exposed. Children can seem naïve or uncaring one day and feel affected the next as they learn and contemplate, even by events that don’t directly affect them. Your own feelings may fluctuate too—talking to kids about catastrophic events is an emotional step for many caregivers.
For more information on emotional wellness from the American Academy of Pediatrics, visit https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Pages/default.aspx