Recent current events such as the United States bombing Syria and Afghanistan has raised the level of concern and awareness of many Americans. Increased military activity in the Middle East and North Korea, combined with seemingly unstable relations with Russia, has gotten everyone thinking about the possibility of war. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, there is no doubt that world events have a significant emotional and mental impact upon children. As someone who meets with young people on a regular basis, I can tell you that the threat of war is on their minds. While our country has technically been “at war” in the Middle East for a long time, it seems far removed from most people’s minds. For many young people, the idea of firing missiles and attacking another country is like a video game or a TV show. The realness of it is hard to grasp. For a country that spends two billion just on Easter candy, it is hard to think of people in other countries without shoes, food, or the ability to breathe clean air.
The Unknown: The Greatest Fear
Most children’s fears are related to the unknown. Fear of the dark is a good example. What is “the dark?” It is unknown what might be out there. Common childhood fears such as abandonment, “bad guys,” and new situations such as a new school year, new soccer team, etc. have the common theme of the fear of change. Fear of losing loved ones has the element of the unknown in that if all my caretakers are gone then how will I be cared for. The reason that threats such as war causes fear is because of the element of the unknown. The unknown is scary because there is a lack of context of understanding. Once the unknown becomes known by breaking things down into smaller pieces that are familiar, the level of fear usually decreases. War, and the threat of war contains elements of all the aforementioned fears.
Discussions about unpleasant things such as war are uncomfortable for parents, which is usually why questions about such matters are deflected or ignored. None of us like to walk with our children into discussions where fear might be stirred up, yet proactive discussions at key periods can give children a sense of safety and preparedness. As I often say to parents, “Would you rather them hear if from another 4th grader or would you like to guide the discussion?” Here are some key points to consider when discussing war and global events that are unpleasant.
Make Discussions Age Appropriate and Use Familiar Concepts
For younger children, explain in simple terms that since the beginning of time there have been conflict between nations. Use pictures and ideas from what they know and understand. For example, in nearly every show or video/computer/tablet game there are conflicts depicted in the action. For example, shows such as My Little Pony, Thomas the Train, all the way to Dragon Ball Z all model conflict resolution and overcoming challenges. Games as simple as Mario Bros. and as complex as Minecraft all contain the themes of facing conflict, dealing with “bad guys,” and either getting help or running for shelter. Children’s books also deal with these themes. When your child is scared about what they’ve heard or seen on the news, think about their favorite show, book, or game to try and relate the concept through this medium.
Using Play to Create Understanding
As I’ve written about many times, play is a way for a child to relate to the real world but from a safe distance. Using dolls, stuffed animals, LEGO mini-figures etc. are great tools to act out disagreements between people. Using arts and crafts such as painting, clay, or drawing is another great tool to give your child the chance to express and work through emotional fear and worry. Remember: A sense of safety comes through understanding. Helping children understand the system of how our government works, how the military makes decisions, and why other countries have different ways of thinking all create a framework of meaning and a sense of safety. Most video/tablet/computer games have the themes of challenges, bad guys, etc. that allow a parent to explain that life has the same themes but that there are ways to protect oneself and find safety.
Build Relationship to Instill Safety
It isn’t rocket science to know that a relationship with trusting, caring adults provides a foundation of safety on which children can thrive. While parents do a lot today and are great managers of their children’s lives, I find that there is little relationship building going on. By spending quality time with children, parents can create a sense of confidence and stability in their child. Related to our topic of helping children with world chaos, children look to the parents to check how mom and dad are doing: If mom and dad aren’t freaking out, then I don’t need to freak out. However, if a solid relationship is not established, the child will not trust that mom and dad are reliable predictors of safety. How much time does it take to build relationship with my child? I tell parents 15-30 minutes at least three or four days per week.
Chaotic world events can make parents feel completely helpless in providing a sense of safety for our children. However, I hope that this helps you see that you have more power than you think in instilling a sense of safety and confidence in your child, despite what is going on in the world. The true goal of parenting is to provide our children with what they will need to face in an uncertain world when we are not there to steady them, and the only way to do that is to teach through relationship.