Vicky Essebag MEd-CPSY, OCT, CSFC. Relational Communication Specialist. May 2022.
There is an old saying, sometimes attributed to an ancient Chinese curse; ‘May you live in interesting times’. We can all agree that so far the 2020’s have certainly been ‘interesting’. In addition to any personal crises that may arise, we’ve seen unprecedented global challenges including: re-emergence into social life while still in the midst of a global pandemic; the futility, helplessness and despair of the war in Ukraine; rapidly increasing environmental disasters; geopolitical populism that threatens democracy - to name a few. These social crises have overtaken our regular lives. In an age of technological connectivity and continuous information, the global crisis playbook sits at our doorsteps, negatively impacting our well-being and that of our children.
No doubt we need to be informed, but intensity, frequency and impact of news is nothing short of overwhelming. It used to be that we could protect our children or manage how and when they received upsetting information. Do you remember when news was less accessible and came from reliable and verified sources? Now there is little control over what our children of all ages are exposed to, and even how factual that information really is.
While it might appear at times that children are disinterested in the news and conversations taking place among adults, this is often not the case. Even if children don’t fully understand, they read the troubling stories and see graphic images on screen, and when their parents or teachers lose hope, so do they. Children become confused as they try to interpret upsetting information without enough knowledge or experience. They may not fully understand what they’re feeling or how to manage their emotions and articulate them to others
We may choose to protect our children by avoiding stressful topics, pretending that all is normal. Yet if we try to appear unaffected by current social crises, and avoid talking to our children about them, we send an unspoken message that it isn’t okay to express our feelings, thoughts and concerns on these subjects. In the absence of discussing upsetting thoughts and feelings, children can resort to unproductive means of coping (e.g; isolation, stress, violence, self-harm).
Parents and teachers can help by:
1. Providing safe spaces for open dialogue.
As children worry about social crises, it is calming for them to know that their parents and teachers will guide, protect and provide safe spaces for them to discuss them openly. These conversations teach the vocabulary needed to express emotions (i.e; specific words to describe feelings) and issues. Open dialogue supports learning, critical thinking, and helps children strategize how to manage their emotions. Collaborative conversations teach social skills (e.g; listening, turn-taking and respecting others' opinions). Most importantly, these opportunities demonstrate to children that they are not alone in their fears or in facing life’s challenges.
We need to carefully manage how deeply we engage children in discussing sensitive topics. Keep in mind that children are impressionable and vulnerable. Your best compass is to respond truthfully, and only to what children ask. You can responsibly share your own thoughts and feelings but try not to overstate or provide too much detail, as this can be stressful and frightening, especially to children who experience anxiety.
Take the time to observe and listen to your children. Allow them to openly share their concerns knowing that they won’t be silenced or judged. Ask them - What are they learning about the war/pandemic/environment, etc.? What do they think about it? What are they feeling? How are they managing to cope with this information? Let them do most of the talking and be ready to answer questions. It’s okay not to have all the answers.
2. Validating the worry.
As we experience worry, so do our children. Telling them not to worry can often cause them to worry even more. Validate how they’re feeling (e.g; ‘I know what you mean. This is really sad/frustrating/frightening….I feel much the same way…What else are you concerned about?’). Let them know that these are normal responses to troubling information.
Offer your children love and kindness and help them reduce stress as you informally hang out with them (e.g; relaxing together with a book, cooking, walking, playing a game). Informal opportunities for connection are great for safely sharing information and providing support.
Teach your children how to mentally note how they are feeling by recognizing signs of stress in their bodies (e.g; clenched jaw, pounding heart, head-ache, upset stomach, fatigue). Noticing these physical signs is a starting point to managing one’s stress. You can then teach your children to calm themselves by showing them how to manage their breathing (slowly count to 4 breathing in, hold for 4 seconds, and then breathe out for 4, repeat).
In some cases, if your children are extremely worried and struggling regularly, you may want to provide additional sources of mental health support in your community - e.g; social worker, counsellor/therapist, free and confidential phone lines. Excellent resources are available in Ontario, at the following link: Province of Ontario Mental Health Supports.
3. Staying with facts.
Check your children’s news sources for credibility. If they’re repeating what they may have heard from friends, alert them to making responsible choices by asking their friends for their sources. As well, remind them that when stories get passed from one person to another, they’re sometimes modified or exaggerated. Discuss with your children the difference between fact and opinion. As an example, social media sites accept news from anyone and everyone who has an opinion, including statements which haven’t been verified and may not be true. Discuss and share trusted sources of information with your children and show them how to access them. Look at the three letters at the end of the website’s domain name. Generally, edu (educational) and gov (government) sites are credible. Are the authors and their credentials listed? As children find information, they can compare with other reliable sources and discuss with you for clarification.
4. Instilling ‘hope’.
A great starting point to conversation is to begin with ‘hope’. Even in the midst of adversity, we can choose to maintain and model hope. Having hope doesn’t magically resolve problems, yet it helps to get through them more successfully. When we speak hopefully, and share hopeful experiences, we and our children can begin to view challenges differently, reframing them to support better outcomes. When we mindfully acknowledge ‘hope’ even in crises such as war, we compassionately establish a foundation for possibility, resolutions and successful healing.
Ask your children, what are their best hopes for themselves in these situations? What do they think they can do to achieve them? Listen as they generate ideas, even if some might appear impractical. You may be able to help your children set goals to work towards them. Help your children reflect on how they can be helpful or of service to others (e.g; raising awareness, constructive projects, fundraisers, donations, community involvement, writing letters to their political representatives). You will find that your children will feel heard and more hopeful after this conversation.
5. Managing the influx of news.
Some children have far too many hours of screen time each day. Support them in managing their own well-being by explaining that limited access to news greatly reduces stress. Plan with your children about how to limit screen time and how much of it should be dedicated to the news. Remember that children access their smartphones even more than they do their computers. Ensure that they don’t have their phone with them when they go to bed at night. Establish a set time (i.e; approximately once or twice per week) to discuss the news together. This will allow you to; a) set boundaries around how often to engage in ‘news’, b) knowledgeably help your children interpret what is being reported, and c) openly exchange thoughts and ideas.
While we can’t ultimately change the course of events during these challenging times, we can manage what is within our control by maintaining hope, and supporting our children with skills and strategies to manage their own awareness and well-being.
Vicky Essebag MEd - CPSY, OPC, CSFC., is a relational communication specialist and thought leader who prioritizes an intentional approach to developing healthy and inclusive relationships. She inspires parents, schools and organizations to cultivate and strengthen communication that promotes success and well-being. Vicky is founder and President of Relationspaces; Solution-focused consulting/coaching/speaking