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When the World Feels like a Scary Place

Our guest blog post is written by Dr Abi Gewirtz, a former South Hampstead pupil, who is the Foundation Professor, Department of Psychology and REACH Institute, at Arizona State University.

After leaving South Hampstead in 1983, Abi studied Psychology at UCL before moving to America, where she has lived for over 30 years, working as a child psychologist; she has consulted with many organisations on parenting, including the US Congress and UNICEF. In 2021, she published her first book entitled ‘When the World Feels Like a Scary Place – essential conversations for anxious parents and worried kids.’

Terror and war in the Middle East have consumed the news cycle and many parents wonder whether and how to broach the issues with their children. I have never met a parent who wants their children to learn about important, and particularly scary, things from anyone other than themselves – mum or dad. Yet talking about war and terror is hard, and as parents, who want to shield our children from awful things, we might feel that it’s best to not talk about them. The problem is that the news – and opinions – are everywhere. Even if your children don’t have a mobile phone, they are likely to hear things in the playground, on the bus, or elsewhere out of the home. Most children get their first mobile phone at age 10 or younger… and once they have one, it is almost impossible for parents to keep the news out.

So, how can we listen and figure out what’s worrying our kids? And, once we know what that is, how do we talk to them about it?

  • First, start with you. How have events affected you? For parents who are personally affected by (for example) roots or family and friends in the region – the news can easily be overwhelming. So, put your own mask on before helping your children. Take some time to respond to your own emotions before broaching the topic with your children.
  • Listen hard to what your children are saying. If your children aren’t talkers, read their non-verbal signs. Do they seem more bothered than usual? Are night times harder? Do they have worried expressions on their faces? If they are talkers, encourage them to tell you what they know.  What children understand differs, of course, by their age. While teens can understand abstract concepts, younger children cannot yet grasp things like the irreversibility of death (when people die, they never come back). So, make sure that whatever you plan to tell your children about what is happening fits their developmental stage.
  • Start by helping your children label their feelings – you might say, for example: “I can see you feel worried because I see your face is all scrunched up. Do you have butterflies in your tummy?” Then take time to validate their feelings. You might say: “No wonder you feel worried, given what you’ve just told me. That would have made me feel worried, too.” Validating your children’s feelings lets them know they are important.
  • Listen, listen, listen! If you feel that your child is unravelling, take a break and do something else. Then come back when everyone is calm. Make sure to end the conversation by helping your child deal with what’s worrying them. You might – together – come up with strategies for calming ‘balloon’ breaths, for example. With older children, you might help them switch off social media, and understand the different between fact and opinion, or ‘fake news’.

Above all, make sure to keep letting your children know that they can tell you anything, however scary it is to them. Keep on with conversations – that goes a long way towards helping your children cope.

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