Fears are a natural part of childhood, with different fears being appropriate at different developmental stages. Many fears are extremely significant in the eyes of a child and can cause him/her to feel ashamed and/or helpless, even if, to an adult, they seem ungrounded or even ridiculous. It is therefore paramount to take a child’s fears seriously, and explain that fears are completely natural and that most people have times when they are afraid. This is even more important during times of increased societal stress.
Both children and adults are frequently exposed to dangerous situations, whether directly or via the media. Tense political situations, particularly when there are constant threats of terror attacks and violence, certainly influence us as adults, and influence our children as well. In such circumstances adults tend to experience anxiety and stress. In contrast, children often react with feelings of uncertainty and helplessness. Many children do not fully understand the nature of the frightening situation that they find themselves in, and this serves to increase their anxieties. On this page we hope you will find some tools for helping your child cope effectively during tense times.
What does your child really know about what is going on?
“He won’t understand the situation if we explain it to him.”
“She’s not old enough to cope with it emotionally.”
“Childhood is a time for fun, it’s a shame to spoil it. She’ll have time enough for worries and tension when he grows up.”
These are just some of the words voiced by parents who are trying to make up their minds about what to share with their children regarding what is going on around them.
To a certain extent, the arguments listed above are true. It would be nice if childhood were a time free of existential fears, a time during which we and they could concentrate on the developmental tasks of childhood. Unfortunately, it is impossible to protect children from exposure to the events occurring around them, many of which can be difficult and disconcerting. Children are much more aware of what is going on around them than we often give them credit for. They hear snippets of information from their friends, listen to television and news reports (even if we try to filter these reports), and absorb the atmosphere at home.
The problem with these fragments of information is that they are often unreliable or exaggerated, leading to more fear. The risk of mistaken information passed on by peers is often greater than the risk of controlled and responsible exposure to the facts when they are presented by parents and teachers.
Understanding Your Child’s Needs
Children exposed to long-term stress and traumatic events have distinct cognitive and emotional needs.
On a cognitive level, children need reliable information that should be shared with them by a parent, teacher, or other responsible adult who is close to them. This information will allow them to sort out the confusing messages and facts that they receive. In addition, it is important to explain the meaning of words and concepts that are in widespread use, for example “terrorist,” “attack,” “arrest,” and “infiltration.” Children often hear and use expressions without fully understanding their meaning. Explaining the various words and concepts in a manner that suits your child’s age and maturity level will go a long way to increasing understanding and clearing up misconceptions.
Emotionally, children need to feel safe and to know that their parents are protecting them. One of the ways to ensure this is to maintain daily routine and stability, which provides feelings of safety in the child’s life. Children also need to be able to express strong feelings and emotions to their parents, and know that their parents will be able to listen and calmly handle these emotions. What can a parent do when there is a conflict between the cognitive and the emotional needs of the child or when the need to understand and clarify the current situation is in conflict with the child’s need for safety and for a feeling that everything is okay? Undoubtedly, this is a tricky situation and there is no one right answer. You will find some guidelines for handling this on the pages Talking with Children about Fears and Supporting Children.