Therapist provides tips on discussing tragic events with children

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Courtesy California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists

In the days and weeks following a high-profile tragedy, violent confrontations, mass shootings, or natural disasters, news stories may cause stress and anxiety for the younger audience. It is normal for adults and kids to feel anxious after a devastating event, but there are ways to help minimize the stress and maintain a sense of normalcy.

“With the pervasiveness and invasiveness of TV news and social media, children today have more access to disturbing news and images than ever before. The most common reason I’m seeing for children being referred to therapy (even as young as 4) in the last several years is excessive, and sometimes debilitating, anxiety,” said Susan Kelsey, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in mental-health services for children and adolescents.

Here are a few suggestions for parents to help reduce their child’s risk of becoming overly anxious during trying times:

Preschool children (ages 0-5)

First and foremost, parents should limit exposure to disturbing material as much as possible for these very young children, including visual images and overheard adult conversations.

All children (even little ones) pick up on and respond to feelings their parents are experiencing, so if parents are feeling overly anxious by the news, they should seek help to reduce their own anxiety.

Parents should answer any questions the child has in an age-appropriate way, keeping in mind that small children scare easily and don’t have the capacity yet for critical thinking.

Early childhood through adolescence (ages 6-19)

Again, limit exposure to disturbing news and images (as age appropriate).

Younger children in this group are beginning to develop more awareness of the world around them and will likely have more questions, fears and misconceptions. Encourage children to express their fears (either verbally or through art), and respond by listening to what they have to say, clearing up any myths or misunderstandings they have, and discussing ways they are safe.

Make sure there is plenty of time for children in this age group to engage in imaginative play and to focus on school. In other words, let them be kids. Sports, dance and any other ways kids can move their bodies can be helpful in reducing anxiety.

Where teens are vulnerable to anxiety and depression, teens also tend to be very empathic and intolerant of injustice, so conversations can focus on ways they can get involved in making the world a better, safer and more tolerant place for all people in the future. Help exchange feelings of helplessness with feelings of empowerment.

Kelsey also recommends that parents keep eating and sleeping routines in place for children, and to prevent children’s access to adult content on computers, phones and TV. Also, children of all ages who are in the groups that are being targeted for hate and discrimination are especially vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Children are at risk on many levels. “Any parent who is concerned about their child’s mental health should seek counseling from a therapist who is experienced with children’s issues,” said Kelsey.

CAMFT is an independent professional organization representing the interests of over 32,000 Marriage and Family Therapists. It is dedicated to advancing the profession, maintaining high standards of professional ethics, upholding the qualifications and expanding awareness for the profession.

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