Dr. Corinne Masur
No matter whom they voted for, everyone in this country is talking about the election results. Emotions are heightened– many people are shocked, angry, worried, fearful or some combination of these potent feelings. While some are frustrated by people protesting the election results, others are shocked and worried about the results. However, most American are united about one thing: concern over the effect that this turmoil is having on our children.
And if your inbox is anything like mine, emails are piling up with petitions, appeals, etc. But one thing that may be different about my inbox is that I’m also getting requests for help in understanding how children are processing recent events. Moreover, I’m receiving questions about how to provide comfort for children who may be even more afraid and confused than the adults around them.
So I would like to start a dialogue. I will offer a few thoughts, but please, write in and let us know what you have done in your home that’s been helpful and comforting for your children!
Children of all ages enjoy and feel comforted by ritual and tradition, both non-religious and religious.
Small children enjoy everyday rituals. A certain song when they get up or go to sleep, a certain order to the day, a bed time ritual that is basically the same every day– these are all very comforting.
Right now is a good time for hunkering down and instituting the rituals you may have been a bit lazy about before. It’s also a good time for encouraging family meals, serving favorite foods, and making the occasional batch of cookies together.
What’s more, young children are comforted by knowing what the schedule is for each day. Having a regular schedule is comforting for all of us because it involves knowing what lies ahead and hence, feeling some control over our day. And as simple as it seems, it’s helpful to tell your toddler or young child what’s going to happen before it happens– this can be as easy as: “first we’re going to get dressed, then we’re going to go down and have breakfast” etc. Older children feel comforted by knowing in advance not just what their schedule is for the day, but also what’s expected of them (whether they like it or not). If there are changes in the daily or weekly schedule, children benefit from knowing this ahead of time.
And perhaps now is the time to institute that movie night you’ve been meaning to hold each week. This may sound mundane, but children who know for sure that on Saturdays they will sit on the couch with their parents, eat popcorn, and watch something fun are children who can count on at least one thing staying the same. This goes for making a special breakfast one morning a week – maybe pancakes on Sundays, or a special dinner. That would be another thing to count on. Game night can substitute for movie night as can a weekly get together with another family or local relatives. The point is to have rituals that work for your family and provide a time of closeness on a regular, expectable basis.
Parents and children alike may be tempted to retreat into screens, whether to read the latest news update or to check what friends are saying about political and social matters on Facebook (or even just to escape and play some video games). There’s nothing wrong with a bit of this and it IS hard to buck the temptation, but solitude isn’t the best answer right now. Everyone – adults and children alike – need breaks from the news, from the games, from the screens in general. Reading aloud to your child, or having your child read aloud to you, can be very calming for everyone involved. This is a great activity not only at bedtime, but also during screen breaks on rainy or snowy afternoons. Getting outside, whether just to take a walk or a trip to the playground is good for the entire family. Use your creativity; think up ways to entice everyone away from the screen for an hour here and an hour there if you’re unable to limit screen time more strictly. And if you ARE willing to set a stricter limit, try 10 – 15 minutes for each year of your child’s age starting at age 4 on school days, with a bit more flexibility on weekends.
And really, what are these rituals but excuses for being close as a family, for sitting together and enjoying something in a relaxed way. This is balm for the stress, anxiety and fear many are feeling.
One mother wrote to me telling me that her four year has seemed more active since the election, running around the house, climbing on furniture; he seems less well regulated than usual. Could he be picking up on her or her husband’s anxiety? Has he been around heated discussions or heard long segments of TV or radio news? Young children pick up on the feelings we feel even when they don’t fully understand the content of what’s being said. Our anxiety can turn into their increased activity level. So the first thing to do is to try to calm ourselves down and reduce the daily input the child receives. Turn off the news. Try a news black out for yourself; try not to check online news updates for a day– or if that’s too much, try to limit how often you check your phone for news updates. Try not to read every single email appeal. This will allow you to be more present for your child and for your other relationships as well. And try to tame the fear by finding ways to relax each day. Do what works for you: deep breathing first thing in the morning, increased exercise, meditation, an evening bath, whatever. If you’re calmer, your children will be calmer and will feel reassured.
Talking to children about the values your family believes in is important in this time of debate over what our country’s values are and what values our President Elect represents. Perhaps this is a time for each of us to reflect, clarify what’s important to us, and talk with our children about this more regularly.
Furthermore, it’s important to talk about respecting the values of others. A topic for discussion can be how to respect the values and opinions of others even when you disagree.
Contributing to Society
For those of us who are feeling helpless, and for our children who are questioning what their future looks like, the best antidote is action. Think about what your children can do to help and to feel effective in the world. Help them to choose activities which allow them to feel some sense of efficacy and control. Choose activities that feel important to them. Writing letters? Signing petitions? Volunteer work? Attending events with like minded people? Any and all of these may help, or you may find others that feel meaningful to your family.
And again, post your ideas in our comments section, please!
One thought on “Providing Comfort to Kids in a Time of Increased Worry”
Dear Dr. Corinne, As a fellow psychologist I applaud your beginning this dialogue by outlining things we can all do to help our children feel safe. YES, they feel our pain and count on us, the adults in their world to represent safety, ritual, family values and ways to express our feelings and take action that feels meaningful. Personally, I am in favor of encouraging dialogue – Modeling for our children the art and practice of listening. We ask questions and listen for the answers: What have you heard? What do you think about that? How might we respond? Taking time away from, what often seem to be highly charged news reports is important, but so is NOT submitting to fear. Acting from fear alone can lead us to lose sight of our values and what is most important. So many of us are afraid these days of what MIGHT happen and who MIGHT do this or that frightening thing. So far, thankfully little meaningful action has been taken by our new President, but when it does, I hope our strength will be in our ability to respond through reason, with strength, clarity and grace. I hope strength will come by upholding, standing for those values we hold most dear. This may prove to be a very powerful time to help our children understand the fundamental values of democracy upon which the laws and fabric of our country are based, tweaked by the personal values we in each of our family units hold dear. We have a wonderful opportunity to help our children embrace difference, practice listening without preconceived judgment and considering different points of view. All the while we hold them close, wrapping them in our love for them with the promise, we WILL keep them safe.
Dr. Fran Martin