October 18, 2023
By Dr Kathy Weston
I got up at 2am last week to drive my son to catch the night bus for a school trip to Italy. He was extremely excited and kept gleefully reminding me that this was the first time he would be in a foreign country without a parent! He had prepared for the trip by learning how to ask for ‘due gelati’ and purchased some sunglasses. As he boarded the bus with a brisk wave, I felt full of gratitude; for the sheer normalcy of his experience and for his singular thinking; about ice-cream, which friend he would be sharing a dorm with and which teacher would be the most fun.
At present, a carefree childhood seems like some sort of relic, and perhaps even unattainable? Part of the reason for this, is that, unlike past generations, most children are now online for considerable periods of time, subjected to a torrent of digital and news media on virtually every platform and device. Algorithms drive them, invite them, lure them into seeing imagery, material and content that, certainly at present, can leave us feeling truly dreadful, sorrowful, helpless, anxious and angry. My son’s (current) carefree childhood engenders a degree of parental guilt too. I ponder life’s extraordinary and unjust lottery. How can it be the case that millions of children are lacking basic water, food, support and security, whilst my son enjoys gelati in the sun?
Sometimes it is hard to forget what children are entitled to. They are entitled to a childhood free from harm and hurt. They are entitled to play. They are entitled to receive an education. They are entitled to feel loved and to feel safe. For those of us living in contexts and countries where our children enjoy a relatively carefree childhood, it seems wrong to ignore trauma elsewhere (even if we can’t directly influence circumstances or situations). It seems wrong to make no comment and to hide it from our children. If children don’t mention it, or don’t ask, should we purposefully bring up and discuss traumatic events occurring in the world?
What about curious or highly sensitive children who take an active interest in the news, global events and want to ask lots of questions. How do we answer them? Do we tell them the truth or do we sugar-coat? Do we explain both sides of a situation, or convince them to share and repeat our viewpoint? How do we explain the pain of others? How can we teach our children to be discerning about what they ‘click on’ when we aren’t there? How do we help them to navigate the playground, bus or gaming spaces where children talk, tease, banter and debate? Just last week, a parent told me her child had been exposed to discriminatory comments on a billboard within the game Roblox; a salutary reminder that completely shielding children from global events is an impossible aspiration.
Last Sunday, the team at Tooled Up hosted a webinar entitled ‘Making Sense of Traumatic Events’ for parents and educators in response to the many questions we had received about helping families cope with global events and atrocities. It featured Consultant Child Psychiatrist, Dr Dennis Ougrin and Anna Tarasenko, a neuroscientist who works on the Ukrainian frontline supporting families.
Dr Ougrin and Anna provided some absolute gems when it comes to advice for supporting children and young people, which can also be applied to any war events or stressful experiences. Through our discussion, three things became very apparent to me. Firstly, children always know more than we give them credit for. As parents, we want to shield them from all the bad in the world and protect them as best we can. However, in doing so, Dennis and Anna explained that we are actually creating more problems for ourselves in the long run. It is impossible to shield our children from everything. And, they would much rather they hear information from us, as opposed to an untrustworthy source like social media or via word of mouth in the playground.
This brings me to point two; communication with our children is key. Children trust the closest adults in their lives and we need to maintain this. This means having age-appropriate conversations about what is going on. Lying to them (even if done with the best intentions) can create mistrust as they grow older, which can be hard to repair. Most children are incredibly resilient. As our experts explained, telling children the truth about any distressing news might be tough in that moment, but in doing so, parents have helpfully maintained their position as a trustworthy source in their life, which is vitally important. Moreover, in case you were wondering, both our experts considered it normal for parents to cry a little or express their own emotions in front of their children (arguing that we are all human and there is no perfect way to process what is happening in the world). When traumatic events occur, it is only natural to be upset or distressed by what is going on, especially if there is a personal connection to the original event. There is no way to shield our child from our emotions all the time. The key thing is modelling coping strategies that we use to feel a little bit better, at the same time.
This brings me neatly to my final point. During these challenging times when we are all subject to daily horrors in press reports, we need to practise self-care and encourage the whole family to do the same. As parents, we need to give ourselves permission to do this. We need to make sure that our cup is full when making sure that we are at 100% to support and look after our children.
In these uncertain and often scary times, we can also encourage the whole family to demonstrate acts of kindness in the community, and express thanks and gratitude for what we have. These acts do not have to be big, grand gestures, but instead might entail fundraising, praying for friends and family, offering help, support or the hand of friendship to members of our community. These agentic acts are beneficial for children; they learn that there are things they can do to make the world a better place and that there are some ‘controllables’ in any dire situation.
Over the past few weeks, I have given numerous talks on pupil and family resilience and on raising teens in the modern age. At every talk I was repeatedly asked the same question, what can I do to help my child become more confident?
One strategy parents can use is to tap into a child’s or teenager’s natural altruism and desire for agency in the world. We mention ‘agentic acts’ above, such as doing something for others in our community. We know that acts of kindness clearly benefit the recipient, but they also nurture the giver. Children can feel better about themselves when they help others; witnessing smiles on others’ faces, receiving positive feedback and beginning to understand that they have the power to make someone else’s day better. When my teen helps our elderly neighbours out once in a while, he enjoys the feedback that he is a ‘hard worker’ and a ‘lovely, helpful boy’, but he also develops his social skills at the same time. He has to learn to speak to people who aren’t his parents and who aren’t of a similar generation or age. This is good for him. Social skills take practice and the more practice young people can get, the better. This is particularly important post-pandemic; a period of time when children became rapidly, digitally upskilled, but face-to-face skills were depleted through lack of use.
Teachers often ask about what they can do to solve the post-pandemic confidence crisis in children and young people. Happily, there are people and organisations out there doing fabulous things that schools can tap into! I recently came across the charity, Inner Wings, whose mission is to build confidence in children aged 6-12. Not only does their ‘Find Our Superpower’ programme help children develop a growth mindset and realise their own unique potential, their follow-on, ‘Finding Your Voice’ programme gives children the skills and confidence to improve their public speaking skills. They offer online training for staff, provide all the necessary materials and support each school throughout the delivery of the programme. What’s not to like?
As parents and educators, we need to collaborate to increase children’s self-knowledge, nurture their self-worth and give them opportunities to experience themselves as capable and powerful. During traumatic times, it is tempting to feel demotivated about the future and drawn towards narratives of hopelessness and helplessness. But let’s remind ourselves that parenting is an act of hope per se, inspired by the vision of an imagined, positive future that we still need to believe and invest in. As the saying goes, the only thing stronger than fear is hope.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Tooled Up parents can listen back to the webinar mentioned above, featuring our experts, Dr Ougrin and Dr Tarasenko and read our top 10 tips article on optimal ways to talk to children at the moment about events in the news.
You might also want to re-read an edition of Wednesday Wisdom on Social Shocks. It references a lovely book which can help younger children to process traumatic world events.
If you want to find out more about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), how it can affect families and how parents can support both themselves and their children, watch our webinar with Dr Hope Christie.
If you are an educator and currently welcoming any displaced children at your school or home, don’t miss our interview with Professor Mina Fazel, which is all about supporting refugees.
For anyone seeking inspiration for effective coping strategies, do take a look at our Coping Menu. It’s perfect for the whole family and can prompt useful conversations about what things help us to feel better and good about ourselves. If your child is suffering from anxious feelings about the news, make sure that you read our Quick Guide to Anxiety, which is packed with advice and links to relevant resources within our platform.
One of the greatest protective assets to mental health and wellbeing is being in nature. It can help us to find perspective, strength, joy and even inspiration. It can help us feel part of something bigger than ourselves and encourage us to relax and appreciate the little things in life. We have various resources designed to nudge children to feel a sense of engagement with nature. Find them all here.