Your worry, anxiety, sadness, trauma, anger, and confusion is normal and so is your child’s.
Our children look to us to help them make sense of what’s happening and for their sense of safety.
These tragic events of the past few days and going forward impact our physical and mental well-being.
In children, there may be increased clinginess, acting out, or even ambivalence. Signs of anxiety can include a pounding heart, restlessness, less sleep, shortness of breath, irritability, stomach pains, headaches, shaking, and sometimes just a feeling that things are not right. When we are traumatised our thoughts, memories, and images can freeze in time and replay over and over again.
You can explain, that these feelings arise naturally when our fight-flight response is triggered as a response to a perceived threat. They serve as a helpful warning to us, like giving us energy to run to safety rooms. But, when it’s triggered and we can’t directly fight or run away we need to find other ways to manage the response to help our minds and bodies continue to function.
As the violence continues, being overwhelmed by our feelings will not help us help our children process and manage their feelings. Pre-schoolers need emotional containment from the adults around them. School-age children are only just learning to self-regulate with adult support.
You don’t need to hide your own emotion completely for your child’s well-being and safety but they need to know that the adults around them are doing all they can to keep them safe. This is particularly hard for those of us who’ve not had that sense of containment from parents in our own childhoods or have experienced other traumas. If you feel you are overwhelmed, identify another trusted adult who can talk to your children about what is happening.
Age, sensitivity, and maturity of the child are important and you can judge as a parent what your child can manage. A helpful technique is being child-led – letting them ask the questions or ascertaining what it is they know already, what they’ve heard in the playground/ from the news/ school, and then go from there. A sensitive child might also be one who’s been exposed to previous trauma and this is re-triggering for them.
Give concrete and factual explanations when possible about what’s happening and the countries that are working together to restore peace and safety and reinforce that most people are good. Try to remain and end conversations with a sense of hope. Their safety is your priority. Most people want and are working hard to restore peace. Older children might be able to talk in more detail about the UN and other countries that are trying to broker agreements.
It’s helpful to keep the conversation open and sometimes this is easier when you are doing something alongside each other eg, baking or driving in the car.
Always validate and don’t minimise their feelings. For example, avoid responding with ‘that’s silly’, ‘that won’t happen’, ‘stop saying that’. You want them to feel able to share all their feelings without fear of judgement or being shut down – so they will keep talking to you. The message to relay is that there are no right and wrong feelings to express, all their reactions are okay, and it’s safe to share how they are feeling and to talk and process and manage the feelings with you.
Increase your connectedness to them and remind them that their safety is your priority and talk about who else they can talk to. Explain which adults they are surrounded by to help keep them safe and how they are keeping them safe.
Try to check in and help them express what thoughts are running through their mind. Some tips from a cognitive behaviour therapy approach. You might ask:
Also, you might draw an outline of a body and get them (and you) to mark out where they notice feelings in their body.
If they can’t share thoughts and feelings easily, can they do it through play/ drawing/ dancing? Can they relate to a scale from 0-100 of an energy battery to show how they are feeling at different times?
Once you have access to some of their difficult thoughts and feelings you can help them to process them. Explain how you and the other adults around them are keeping them safe.
Try to act per your values (ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT):
This can also function as another useful tool – distraction. We cannot spend our time 24/7 focused on the media, we need to have breaks. Find nurturing and fun things to do such as puzzles, games, songs, writing poems/ letters together, and reading together.
Helping others also gives us a sense of calm and well-being. Focusing on other helpers such as the efforts of other countries or the role of the UN to bring peace, doctors and nurses, teachers, security, and charities may be helpful. Likewise supporting your child to remember a time they have been kind and helpful or someone they know who has been. Encourage them to imagine that sense within their bodies and how they might be kind and helpful themselves.
Grounding means coming back to the present moment rather than playing over our worries in our heads. Whilst the present moment still might not be pleasant we can come back to our own breath and focus on the people we know and love who are with us and supporting us and hold hope for the future.
As long as it’s safe to do so (and sounds and sights and smells aren’t currently distressing) you might try practising identifying the following:
Deep diaphragmatic breathing can bring us back to ourselves. When all else feels lost we always have our breath to ground and centre us. If someone is distressed and entering ‘freeze’ mode, getting them moving is important. Small movements such as wiggling feet, legs, arms, and hands up to tensing and relaxing different muscle groups may be a helpful start.
Perhaps there are some reassuring words/affirmations you can help them to hold close such as:
Give and receive extra nurturing than usual at this time – this can be in any form, watching films/tv shows together, cuddling, walking, gaming, or reading together. Let your children know you are always there to help them, offer them hugs, talk, or distraction – find what works best for them.
If they go back to school, find ways to help them stay connected. Give them something from you to keep with them or draw hearts on your hands to help them remain close and remind them they are loved. If they have phones check in to see how they are doing.
Finally please limit exposure. Be mindful of what you talk about, your tone of voice, and your own distress as well as the news that’s on the radio/TV. For example, your children might hear something worrying on the news but don’t hold all the context and this can stay in a child’s mind. There may be harrowing images and sounds shared that are traumatising.
Be extremely mindful of social media – many unfiltered videos are being shared now and likely continuing in the coming days. Share information regularly through conversation with you instead. Children’s brains can’t manage the negative news and come up with safe, reassuring thoughts. We need to help them to process the emotion and not feel overwhelmed – bad things are happening but good people are trying to make it better.
All the same applies to you! Please take care of yourselves.
Written by Dr. Naomi Coleman is a chartered child and adolescent specialist clinical psychologist, and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, with a bachelor of medical sciences, a master of education, and a doctorate in clinical psychology. She is a co-founder of the Israeli charity Jeremy’s Circle and works as a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist at the Gesher Assessment Centre, NW London.