Reading an article about the Japanese Tsunami on the internet, my five-year-old walked by and asked why that woman was crying. I panicked. Should I tell her the truth? Should I change the subject and forget she ever saw the woman? The answer lies somewhere in between.
Watching the news today can be very scary, especially for a young child. Even if you're shielding her from all the details of world disasters, glimpses of terrifying and heartbreaking situations may have you answering some tough questions from your precocious preschooler. Here are some ways to ease your child's anxiety, without telling them flat-out lies.
If you're noticing a tinge of fear from your child, start asking questions. Ask open-ended questions that allow your child to explore her emotions. Ask things like, "How does that make you feel?" rather than, "Does that make you scared?" While you certainly don't want to plant ideas in her head, you also want to ask questions that can't be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." You want to open a dialogue. Really encourage her to discuss her concerns.
Along with asking questions, be willing to listen. You won't want to patronize her with comments like, "You're just being silly." Really take the time to validate how she's feeling and practice active listening. This is the process when you listen intently, repeat what the person has said so that they know you understand them, then add what you wish to say. It can be started with, "So, what you're saying is, you're afraid a big wave will come and wash away your house? That can be a very scary thought."
Be Truthful, But Gentle
Give answers that are age appropriate for your child. You know what your child can handle. You also want to avoid giving so much information that they panic. I want my child to know that other people are suffering. It's real and it's important. But I don't want her to know all the gruesome details.
Make a Plan
Sometimes, the very act of making a plan puts the entire fear at ease. Take time to address your child's specific fear and discover ways you can mediate the risk. If it's an earthquake, use this as an opportunity to collect cans of food and gallons of water. Make a meeting place if your family gets separated, and get some of those inexpensive reflective blankets that are used for emergencies. If your child is older, you can allow her to set up a family meeting time to go over the procedures and plans you've prepared. Just remember that, while it's good to be prepared, this activity shouldn't feed the hysteria. If your child starts panicking again, practice active listening, then follow it with something like, "Remember, we've been preparing, so we don't need to worry like that anymore." Worrying never did anything anyway.
It's always a great idea to teach our children empathy. It's a good thing that my daughter is sad because someone lost her family. I don't want to brush that away or pretend it didn't happen. But the next step is to get involved. You can research relief effort missions and ask your child if she has any ideas to raise money. If you practice a faith in your home, introduce your child to prayers for those who are suffering.
If these don't mediate your child's fears, you may want to consider counseling. There are a number of tools counselors can give your child to help her get through this time. Ask if the school offers any programs if you don't want to pay someone. If they don't have programs, they may be able to direct you to the agency that can help in your state.
How do we deal with tragedies in the news with our children? By treating them with respect and directing their fears into something constructive. It's a huge step to creating an empathetic child, who grows into an aware adult. And that's what we need more of in this world.