Life-threatening global, national and community events can have a negative impact on children as well as adults. The possibility of significant adverse events such as, global warming, war, terrorism, bushfires, earthquakes, floods, drought, or pandemics such as swine or bird flu, occurring now or in the future, can threaten our sense of safety and control.
While younger children depend mainly on parents and teachers to interpret the information provided about an event, older children will get information from a range of sources that may not always be reliable.
The extensive media exposure and reporting of these events and the repetition of stories on the radio, television, in newspapers, online and informally through discussion with others can add to the adverse impact of these events. Increasingly, children are exposed to adult issues they are ill-prepared to deal with. Widespread media exposure may lead some children to worry about themselves, their families, and the future of the planet. This has been particularly apparent following repeated replaying of events like the 11 September 2001 attacks in the USA.
Children are especially vulnerable to feelings of loss of safety, fear or apprehension following a significant adverse event.
The closer the event is to the child or their family members, the more likely it will have a significant impact on the child. Following or during these events, teachers may observe changes in specific children in their class. Teachers can assist by listening to children’s concerns, helping them to cope with their fears by demonstrating that teachers and other adults around them can manage and work their way through adverse events and issues.
Behaviours of children who fear adverse events
Children who fear adverse events may display some of the following behaviours or characteristics:
- speaking about and asking questions about the event
- expressing feelings about the event through creative means, such as playing war games, drawing pictures of bombs and killing, or writing about natural disasters
- writing poetry or stories that indicates sadness, confusion, worry or despair
- acting aggressively or fighting with friends
- being quiet
- withdrawing from others
- being teary
- have difficulty concentrating
- refusing to cooperate
- school refusal.
Children’s emotional responses will vary in nature and severity. Common emotions experienced by children following a significant adverse event include fear, confusion, anger, loneliness, sadness, and anxiety. It is a general principle that whatever you know about a child, the parents should be informed about your observations or concerns.
When to seek further assistance
If a child has been displaying a number of the above behaviours for more than one month following life-threatening events, it is recommended that you refer them, via their parents, to a psychologist or the family doctor. If the child is left untreated, a type of anxiety disorder that occurs following exposure to or fear from life-threatening or adverse events may develop, which can remain with the child through adolescence and into adulthood. A diagnosis and treatment will require consultation with a mental health practitioner or doctor.
Strategies to support the child who fears life-threatening events
Acknowledge the child’s concerns
- Listen to the child and acknowledge the fears. Reassure the child that, given the widespread media attention on the issue, it is understandable they are worried about what is happening and how it could impact upon their lives.
- Normalise the child’s feelings. Let the child know that media exposure or hearing adults talk about worrying events might lead to heightened feelings of fear and apprehension and that this is normal and that these feelings will subside.
- Respond to incorrect information or assumptions about the event. Explain how information can be distorted when it is passed from one person to the next, as in the game known as ‘Chinese Whispers’.
- Know the facts about the situation. Don’t speculate about what is happening— make sure you know the facts and keep up-to-date. Inform the child or your class about what is actually happening in a way that does not promote further anxiety.
- Answer questions as honestly as possible, in an age-appropriate way without ‘blood and guts’ or information they don’t need to know, to avoid further worrying the child.
Copyright © Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim 2011
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