Kari Sutton

Kari Sutton

In today’s digital age, it’s impossible to hide the frightening truth about global events from our children. Even if you shield them from it at home, your children are probably hearing this news from friends, teachers, or on social media. These events are compounding our kids stress and anxiety when they are already depleted and distressed. Research Professor Marie Leiner explains that indirect exposure to traumatic events through the media “affects the mental health of children, in both short- and long-term ways that differ completely from the effects in adults. Children’s vulnerability, immaturity, and developmental state change their perspective.”

Responses you might observe in your children include:

  • Hyper-vigilance: when they seem to be alert all the time and not able to switch off
  • They might constantly think about the negatives
  • They might have trouble sleeping
  • Their behaviour might regress
  • Their stress response could be heightened and little things that wouldn’t ordinarily upset them are really getting under their skin.

The best way of dealing with world events is to not avoid the topic, be open to their questions and be prepared with answers. We want to encourage our children to feel free to come to us with their questions and concerns. What we say to our children depends on their age and the questions they ask.

Here are some general guidelines

  • Take your cue from them- tune into conversations they are having and take their lead about how much, or how little, they want to know about what’s going on.
  • Ask open-ended questions to find out what your children already know about the war situation, and how they found out about it.
  • Be calm and reassuring – manage your own levels of anxiety or fear before you speak to them.
  • Limit exposure to television news and social media – be selective as some of the news footage will be distressing and may trigger other fears and anxieties. It can be tempting to turn off the news and avoid discussing conflicts and disasters altogether in an attempt to protect your kids. However, research has shown that instruction is better than restriction when it comes to media and social media. What does an instructive approach with the media look like? For young children, it means you either need to vet the media channels they have access to or co-view these sites together so you can help them understand what they are seeing. For teenagers ask them what they are seeing, talk about how it makes them feel and encourage them to think critically about the reliability of that information.
  • Let them know that you understand that what is happening and set the emotional tone
  • Give them factual information that is short and clear
  • Provide them with opportunities to talk about how they are feeling and explain that you’re glad they came to talk with you about it. Accepting and normalising the emotions that your kids are displaying helps them to process and release their bottled up fears and sadness.
  • Explain that it is ok to feel worried and/or frightened about war, in this way you’re giving them permission to have those feelings and to talk about them if they choose.
  • Plan to have ongoing conversations with your kids not just a one time discussion
  • Search for positive stories about the events – show your kids the outpouring of help, support and aid that is being sent, encourage them to look for and identify the helpers.
  • Positive action can be a very effective way to reduce anxiety. If your children want to help they could donate money to charities who are on the ground helping, or they could extend friendship to Ukrainian and Russian children at their school or in your community. Feeling that they have the ability to help make a difference is an antidote to the powerlessness we feel in the face of tragedy.

We may not be able to control many of the things that are happening in our world, but these guidelines can provide our kids with strategies to help them process what’s happening and develop healthy ways to cope during these uncertain times.