November 18, 2015

Helping children navigate challenging times

By Bill Cirone

Like millions of people around the world, I watched TV coverage of the chaos and carnage in Paris with growing revulsion and dread. My heart went out to the victims and family members of those so profoundly affected by such barbarism and terror.

In a thoughtful Time magazine article on the impact of tragedies on children, columnist Belinda Luscombe pointed out that when terrible events such as the attacks in Paris happen, parents’ immediate instinct may be to shield their children from them. While this is perfectly natural, especially for preschool-aged children, it may not always be the best approach, according to experts.

She cites advice from Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute. “It’s very likely that your child will hear about what happened,” Koplewicz says, “and it’s best that it comes from you so that you are able to answer any questions, convey the facts, and set the emotional tone.”

When kids remain afraid despite your reassurances, psychologist Paul Coleman, author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces, offers the helpful acrostic “SAFE” as a toolbox for things to do when it comes to interacting with your unsettled children.

S: Search for hidden questions or fears. Parents should not be afraid to inquire what other anxieties or concerns are besetting their children, and to ask about the nature of the conversations they are partaking in with their peers. “The goal is to not assume your child is okay because it would make you—the parent—more at ease to believe that is so,” Coleman says. “Some children may not speak up about their fears or may be unable to articulate them without a parent’s willingness to ask questions.”

A: Act. This point may seem elementary, but it warrants emphasis. It is vital that parents maintain their normal routine and activities, from wake-up to homework to bedtime rituals. But it can also be a great opportunity to impart on them the value of doing small things for friends, families, and neighbors. “It is a good time to have them do kind things for others,” says Coleman. Whether it’s helping an elderly neighbor down the steps or doing something for a stranger, those acts can remind them “that there are kindnesses in this world,” despite what the headlines might suggest. In so doing, parents can mitigate the feelings of helplessness their children may have.

F: Feel feelings. “Let them know their feelings make sense,” says Coleman. “Saying ‘There is nothing to worry about,’ teaches them that you may not be the person to speak to about their fears.” Allowing children an opportunity to talk about what’s going on in their heads can help them organize the chaos, and it also allows parents to demonstrate patience and compassion.

E: Ease Minds. Once children have talked through the range of their uncertainties, it is time for parents to allay their concerns further by reminding them of all the people who endeavor to do good, regardless of the circumstances. “Reassure them that there are good people trying to help others and prevent future attacks,” says Coleman.

Coleman’s advice here puts me in mind of an anecdote from the late Fred Rodgers for times like these. In Mister Rogers' Parenting Book: Helping To Understand Your Young Child, Rogers recalls an admonition his mother imparted on him when he would see, read, or hear about something unsettling in the news. “Look for the helpers,” she told him. “You will always find people who are helping.”

Rogers went on to say that this reminder from his mother proved to be a repeated source of comfort and consolation to him—especially in times of great unrest or disaster. There are indeed helpers all around us, as witnessed by the focused, selfless actions demonstrated by the first responders to the terror in Paris.

While continued coverage of these awful events can become an emotional drain, it is important to underscore that nearly all experts agree: the top priority for parents should be allotting extra time to their children. “The best thing you can do as a parent is be available,” says Koplewicz. “Just spending time with them and reassuring them that an event like this is unusual can make a huge difference.”