It’s easy to assume that we live in a time period that is far more dangerous, tense and violent than it’s ever been. Every day seems to bring a new horror—the fallout from wars, mass shootings, and acts of terrorism—all broadcast in hi-def across our media platforms.
And while the reality of that unprecedented danger may be debatable, its ability to demand our attention is not. Today, just about anything that happens around the world is instantaneously filmed, tweeted and streamed into our homes. As adults, we can rationally decide which events present a real, personal danger—but our children cannot.
Developmentally, children see and interpret the world much differently than we do. To help them deal with frightening, traumatic images, it helps to understand how they view things.
Young children (up to preschool and early-elementary age) are at a stage of development best defined as egocentric. That means they understand the world in relation to themselves and how things will personally affect them.
This is a natural stage of development, but it can make traumatic events on the news seem especially frightening. A two-year-old who accidentally sees images of towns and buildings being destroyed in the Middle East, for example, may suddenly be afraid that his or her home is no longer a safe place as well.
Children start to think in concrete terms around the time they enter middle school, and they can think more abstractly as adolescents. But it’s difficult—if not impossible–for younger kids to view terrible events in the hypothetical sense. At this stage of development, researchers suggest three ways to help young children cope with their feelings: emotional processing, roles and routines, and distraction.
- Emotional Processing: Although their language skills may be limited, it’s important to give children an opportunity to discuss their feelings. If a child appears to be upset because of something he’s seen, for instance, you might ask him how it makes him feel. You could encourage him to draw a picture, use toys to act it out or incorporate any method that allows him to express those feelings. The important thing is to let him know that it’s okay to experience these emotions, which may range from sad to scared and confused.
- Roles and Routines: Predictable routines are a calming force for children this age. Continuing daily habits at predictable times can help reinforce a child’s sense of security in the face of unpredictable events. So, if your child is upset, this may not be the best time to introduce new or challenging experiences, such as overnight trips or a new school.
- Distraction: It’s a good thing for children to express their feelings and process the situation, but there’s no need to dwell on it. Instead, reinforce feelings of safety by participating in activities your child enjoys. From playing a favorite game to letting your child help you in the kitchen, these activities provide a healthy distraction from an anxious situation. And obviously, turn the screens off. The constant assault of information does nothing to soothe the anxiety.
Although young children interpret the events of the world differently than we do, it’s important to understand how they process what they see. Only then are we adequately equipped to help them feel safe, confident and loved.
David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street Columbus, OH 43206 or by phone at 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.