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Helping children cope with bad news

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

When many of us were growing up we learned about the outside world through the television, often watching news program with our parents censoring and shielding as they deemed appropriate.

While we were watching, violent or tragic stories were prefaced with a warning, and it gave parents the chance to shoo kids away from the television or let them prepare for the inevitable questions which followed.

Today, with the advent of the digital age, and devices and screens at our children’s fingertips so too is the 24-hour, real-time news cycle. It makes children privy to the news of the world, good and bad, as it happens.

Terror attacks, bombings, nuclear war threats, elections, hateful debate, spiteful commentary, politically-laced conversation and all manner of things that our kids simply cannot rationalise, much less understand.

According to the First Five Years' Snapshot of Australian Families survey, more than 50 per cent of parents believe children face a tougher future than the one they grew up in, so it is important they are armed with the skills to help their children cope. 

How do we protect our children without wrapping them in cotton wool or comfort them without lying?

For University of the Sunshine Coast Associate Professor Dr Michael Nagel it comes back to the same core principles which should be adhered to whatever the issue affecting children: consistency and a sense of safety.

"Think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs," Dr Nagel said.

"Certainly, there are the physical needs of food, clothing and shelter but there are also the needs for security a sense of belonging and to be loved. Those things are all integral to our survival.

"Anything that is unpredictable or threatening (real or perceived), makes us feel like we are not in control. 

"Another way to remember the problem is NUTS: Novel, Unpredictable, Threatening and no control over the Situation.

"This is why keeping things calm and stable, and showing children they are loved and safe, with predictable surrounds, is the most important thing a parent can do."

As with most things, timing is everything. And while, as a parent, our first instinct is to fix whatever is upsetting our child, we are best to just settle and comfort them first and then ask questions and find answers later.
Dr Michael Nagel

Closely following that is the need for parents to explain what the child has seen or experienced in context and to reassure them that there is a lot of good in the world.

"A child doesn't have the cognitive capacity to understand something they see on the news, in their living room on their TV is not posing a threat to them.

"Even if the event is happening on the other side of the world, this has to be explained to the child and reassurance given that where we are is safe, they are safe and this is a very unusual event.

"If the cause of stress and anxiety is closer to home – coming from something in the playground, at school or at home – then it is important to support and comfort them during the times of stress and then wait until the child is calm and not under stress to discuss the concerns and try to shed some reason.

"As with most things, timing is everything. And while, as a parent, our first instinct is to fix whatever is upsetting our child, we are best to just settle and comfort them first and then ask questions and find answers later."

Organisational performance coach, Tania Begg, of Impact Improvements, says the brain in unable to take in information or rationalise when under high levels of stress.

Tania says protracted episodes of stress and anxiety can be counter-productive to development and can hinder a child's capacity to communicate their concerns.

This is why both Tania and Dr Nagel maintain the need for removing the child from the stressful situation, comforting and calming them and then later trying to get to the bottom of what's going on.

"There are good levels of stress, and through that we can build resilience," Tania says.

So how to deal with anxiety?

  1. Talk to your child.

    Encourage open and honest conversations about whatever is upsetting them. Don't make them feel bad or silly for bringing up issues – whatever they are. Use age-appropriate explanations and reassure them they are safe. The most effective time to talk about their concerns is when they are calm and not in the midst of an episode. 

  2. Censor.

    Certainly, we are not talking about wrapping your child in cotton wool, but if you know your child is sensitive to things they see and hear on the news, use your discretion and flick over to another channel or turn the news off. Be aware and forewarned with information first in case of questions so you can provide honest but suitable answers.

  3. Engage your team.

    Make sure everyone connected with your child are on the same page with your approach to your child's anxiety and stress – and how to deal with the triggers. Speak with educators and carers and tell them what you have spoken about with the child and let them know the questions and concerns raised. Making sure everyone is on the same page is vital. Again, it comes down to consistency.

Of course, for you to identify stress and anxiety in your child, there has to be a few tell-tale signs.

Dr Nagel says the first and most obvious thing to look for is a sudden change in behaviour or disposition.

"That's the general rule. If there is a sudden change, then it's a good sign something it wrong.

"Look for things like avoiding activities, highly individualised behaviour, headaches, tummy pains, a change in appetite (usually not eating), nightmares or night terrors, bed wetting and sleep disturbances.

"These are all good signs your child is not happy about something."

In all though, Dr Nagel maintains that for all the bad news and the sad stories in the world, there are hundreds of good ones we just don't hear about.

"Tell your kids it's not all bad; that there is so much good and so many good people.

"Reassure them."