Parents’ assurance keeps child calm, safe

Posted Sept. 04, 2009, at 7:13 p.m.

A 7-year-old girl is swept into the sea at Thunder Hole. Another young woman in the news was held captive for most of her life by a pedophile in a backyard complex. College students pack face masks, sanitizing wipes, and hand sanitizers in preparation for the onset of flu season. Unemployment continues to run rampant and to touch every family either directly or indirectly.

If this is a lot for us to deal with as adults, we can only imagine what such news is doing to our young children. Not only does all of this represent an emotional overload for them, but often that burden can be enhanced by the fact that they hear some information in much more frightening terms than we realize.

I recall, for instance, when my now-28-year-old daughter was about 7 years old. I noticed that she had begun to shadow me around the house, to resist going off to school, to demand longer bedtime story readings — and she was wakeful at night. When I asked if she was worried about anything, I was astounded to be told, “I’m worried about Daddy. There’s that guy running around with an ax where Daddy works, and I’m afraid that man will chop Daddy, too.”

It did not take me long to realize my daughter had overheard her father say that another employee had “gotten the ax” at work. Of course, we adults knew the man had been fired from his job, and we were worried that other employees might lose theirs, too. But it had not occurred to us that our 7-year-old would take literally and be terrified by that phrase.

“A child’s imagination can take a turn of phrase and fly with it,” said Christina Banks, a psychotherapist in Rockland who specializes in working with children who have attachment issues. “This can result in undue and unexpected upset on the child’s part,” she added.

It makes sense to choose one’s words carefully when speaking in front of children. Unless a child is asking you a question about these matters, it makes even more sense to avoid speaking in front of children about worrisome issues such as speculations about who will lose a job next, the H1N1 virus, or the 30-foot wave that struck Thunder Hole. Banks also advises limiting youngsters’ exposure to television news.

Nevertheless, with media barraging us from all sides and other people bringing up uncomfortable topics even if parents don’t, children are surely going to glean something about the many stresses operating in the world at large, and fears can arise along with this.

Banks said it’s up to parents to be vigilant about children’s fears. One way to do this is to look for constellations of behavior changes, such as clinginess, appetite changes, stomach aches and other minor ailments, difficulty sleeping, sadness, anger, defiance, and regression back to younger patterns of behavior, such as wanting a bedtime story to be read over and over again. Once we realize our children might be stressed, “it’s time to hear what’s on their minds rather than just broadly reassuring them,” Banks advised. Only by letting the child speak can we realize, for instance, that she is not generally worried about unemployment but she is specifically afraid that her father will be attacked by someone wielding an ax at his workplace.

Beyond allaying a child’s specific fears, we can also build a sense of safety by behaving calmly and with a sense that we know what we are doing. According to Banks, “A child’s sense of confidence and calm comes first and foremost from the parents.”

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