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World events, near and far, have parents concerned about their children's reaction to the news and how to help them cope with the information and their emotions. The recent natural disaster in South Asia may be a topic of conversation around the dinner table and may be prompting some questions and unsettling feelings in young children. We offer the following information to inform parents of young children about the nature of their child's socio-emotional and intellectual world and how to support their child's development in difficult times.
- Children need to feel safe. Sticking to the familiar and regular routines provides the security and consistency that children need in order to cope when the outside world seems unsettled. Reassure young children that the family will keep them safe.
- Young children's mental capacity to understand events and images of natural disasters is limited. A preschooler, whose understanding of time and space is weak, may assume that what they are seeing on TV is close to home and so may become scared that a tsunami will crash down in his neighbourhood. As young children don't have the ability to filter what is coming through the news, their worries are created from bits of information that then take on a life of their own. Turn off the TV and reduce the minute-to-minute updates of the situation.
- Answer children's questions using words and concepts that are at their developmental level. Never dismiss a child's need to know and have her curiosity satisfied, but how you answer these questions is as important as what you say. It is important to stay calm and be honest, even if the questions cause some discomfort. The average preschooler's thinking is very concrete and egocentric, so keep the information simple, limited to what they need to know and related to how they view the world (i.e., avoid gruesome details or long term consequences). For older children, a simple scientific explanation of how earthquakes and tsunamis are created should be provided. Make sure to tell them that they do not live in an area that has tsunamis. Reassure the child that adults in the world are trying to take care of a problem and that children do not have to worry.
- Very young children are sensitive to your moods and emotions. When a parent is anxious or worried, your child will pick up on it. Monitor your behaviour with others and keep your emotions in check. Children should not have to feel that they must be in control and taking care of their parent's emotional needs.
- If your child appears to be worried, help her to identify those feelings by labelling them. It is important that young children learn from an early age that it is good to talk about feelings so that an adult can help. Give the child the words for her feelings, e.g., "I can see you are feeling scared, angry, sad, or worried when you see those pictures on TV. Mommy and Daddy can help by talking about it with you."
- Keep calm when your child is upset. Remember, you cannot be helpful unless you are in control of your own emotions. If you acknowledge and validate your child's fears and emotions with a supportive hug, your child will learn that you are available and there for them when they need you most.
- Let children participate in any charitable action that the family undertakes. Even young children can be made aware of how everyone can contribute to ease the suffering of others. Talk to them about how people all over the world are giving money to send food, water and supplies to families who no longer have a home. Ask them how they think they would like to help, e.g., sending clothes, making cards or writing emails to let others know that they are thinking about them.
- Be aware of any changes in behaviour or sleeping and eating patterns. Depending on your child's temperament and stage of development, anxiety and worry may come out as increased clinginess, crying and aggression; fear of separation from a parent; quiet or withdrawn state; regression in toileting and thumb sucking; and finally complaints of head and stomach aches. Consult your family physician if some of these changes persist.