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In the wake of the recent natural disasters and tragedies, we’re barely able to process one before another comes along. It’s hard for adults to comprehend, but what about our kids? With smartphones and classroom conversations, they are exposed to details that may leave them scared and confused. So how do we talk to our kids about what they are feeling?

Experts say it depends on their age, although universally we can listen and validate their feelings. It’s also important to keep our own feelings in check, because frazzled parents feed the anxiety and stress by exhibiting their own emotional loss of control. It’s acceptable to share similar concerns to a certain degree, because this allows children to better connect with you. However, maintaining your composure as a voice of reason is critical in helping them move beyond fear, sadness and perhaps despair.

Limit Exposure to Tragic News, but Live in Reality.

It’s important to be informed. But with hundreds of news outlets and social media platforms, prolonged exposure to tragic events can have serious, negative effects on our well-being. Some kids may eagerly want to discuss world events, while others may withdraw or even act out. Family dinners, car rides and even going for a walk are all good opportunities to approach a topic without the formality. Focusing on the broad facts and not the details of the victims keeps it real without being too overwhelming.

After you and your child have had an initial conversation, try to steer the dialogue away from upsetting current events. Dwelling on the stories and news coverage keeps your children – and you – stuck in the negative head space. Unless your son or daughter is reaching out and seeking advice or asks a different question, it’s best to limit the this discussion.

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How You Should Talk to Your Children Depends on Their Age.

  • Children younger than 5-years-old should not be told about what  happened. They cannot comprehend the magnitude of the situation – especially if it hasn’t affected their own life. On the reverse side, they may think their family or home is in jeopardy and connect dots that shouldn’t be connected.
  • For children between the ages of 6-11, providing basic facts and minimal exposure is enough.
  • Encourage pre-teens and teenagers to shut off the news feeds from their electronic devices in order to decompress. Kids should be kids and not feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. Keeping a routine of eating well, sleeping well, getting regular exercise, spending time with friends, and participating in activities that make them feel good, establishes normalcy. Again, remain approachable and open to a conversation your teen wants to have so that they feel they have an outlet to discuss what’s on their minds.

Engage Your Kids in Conversation and Ask Questions.

It may not be easy for some kids to talk about what they hear in school or see on TV . Parents may need to start by asking simple, open-ended questions such as, “What do you think about `fill in the blank`?” Don’t put words in their mouth or try to finish their sentences. The words they use can tell you a lot about what’s going on inside their heads. Their words will also help you steer the conversation in the right direction. A good place to start may be, “So how does this all make you feel?”

Once you get them talking, it will be important to reassure them of their safety and resilience. If a mass shooting or terrorist attack happened in another state or country, remind your child he or she is safe in their community. Praise the first responders for their quick thinking and point out the lives they saved. The same holds true with natural disasters. Note that some areas are more prone to hurricanes, flooding and fires.

Remind your child that humans are compassionate and help one another in times of need. Communities are rebuilt and families are surrounded by friends and neighbors who provide prayers, food, shelter and comfort. Helping kids understand that we can get back up after being knocked down can turn hopelessness into hopefulness.

Take Action and Help Those Affected by the Tragedy.

Help empower your child, no matter what his or her age. Feeling helpless can keep anyone stuck in a negative mindset. Although we can’t stop Mother Nature or another’s actions, we can pick up the pieces and support others in the aftermath. Consider donating supplies or toys, giving blood, or writing letters to victims of a tragedy. These acts can make young people feel they are making a positive difference in a terrible situation. Talk to your local schools, places of worship and community programs to see how you can contribute,

Bad things happen, but coming together and helping others in need can be a lesson in perseverance, as well as gratitude. Remind children it’s not what happens to us, but rather how we react that matters most.

Know the Signs of Stress.

Despite our best efforts to support our kids through life’s difficulties, they may be unable to move forward. If after a few weeks you think your child is struggling emotionally and there is a change in behavior, seek advice from your pediatrician or a counselor.

While anxiety is a normal reaction to stress, it can take hold and interrupt one’s daily life. Depression, on the other hand, is a serious medical condition that has devastating effects. The good news we can treat anxiety and depression.

Signs of anxiety include:

  • Restlessness
  • Feeling on edge
  • Easily fatigued (tired)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle tension
  • Insomnia
  • Withdrawing from activities, friendships
  • Loss of joy or things that brought joy

Depression symptoms can vary from mild to severe, last longer than two weeks and include any of the following:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing)
  • Slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

There is no right or wrong way to talk to your child. Simply opening the door and engaging them is an important first step. Every child is different in how he or she handles stressful events. You know your son, daughter or grandchild best, so keep your eyes and ears open. And remember that no matter what our age, geographic location or personal connection to a situation, we’re all in this together.

For more information about stress, anxiety or depression, please contact the PinnacleHealth Psychological Associates at 717-231-8360.

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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