By Ailsa Lord, Child and Adolescent Counselling Psychologist, Lakeside Psychology.
Communities were shocked by recent bomb threats at a number of schools around Pakenham and across Melbourne. Although some children were not old enough or didn’t have an awareness of what was happening and so were not affected as these events unfolded, others have been particularly tuned into the threats and have had difficulty coping with this experience.
What things influence a child’s response?
Some children have an easy-going temperament that allows them to go through life with a positive attitude and a relaxed manner. Other children seem to get stuck on details that some don’t even notice, and these children may have a more anxious personality. Kids that fall into the second category will be more likely to experience stronger or more extended negative effects from experiences such as bomb threats.
Previous experiences of loss
When there has been a previous adjustment or loss (e.g. moving to a new school, death of a grandparent) in the child’s recent history, they are more vulnerable to subsequent stressors. This may explain why a seemingly small stressor seems to trigger a big reaction in your child, and is related to the saying “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”.
Existing anxiety symptoms
If your child is already anxious, threatening experiences may give them another thing to worry about, even though they probably don’t need another. Anxiety about one trigger is “sticky” and can easily generalise to anxiety about a new trigger.
How adults around them react
Children gauge how to respond to an event by checking out how adults around them respond. This means it is very important for adults to be able to role-model good coping skills. If children see caregivers panicking, then they will understandably assume the situation is something they need to worry about also. This does not mean that parents cannot be anxious – just that it is helpful for you to focus on how you manage your own anxiety.
How can I support my child?
Minimise media exposure
Children need to be protected from media reports that are created for adults, because adults can tolerate a lot more distressing content than children. It is best to avoid watching news footage of schools in lockdown, as well as other news stories that could alarm your child. Children have not yet developed the coping skills (such as understanding that these things are unlikely to happen to them), whereas adults make these sorts of assessments on a daily basis to help them cope with threats and danger. Likewise it is best to avoid audio footage of distressed people making comments about how awful a threatening situation is, as children may become fearful after hearing these messages.
Give age appropriate information
If you reduce media exposure, you are able to tailor the information that you give to your child about the event. This is because you can choose how to frame the information that you give, and how much detail to provide. Start by asking your child what they already know, then fill in any gaps in their understanding and address any misconceptions. When children don’t have answers to what is happening they come up with answers themselves to manage the uncertainty, and these answers may be far scarier for them than your explanation. It is not a good idea to try and shield children from the event, because they are likely to find out from other sources.
It is crucial that children’s feelings are supported by their caregivers. If children feel that their natural emotional response is not accepted, another layer of distress is added to the original anxiety, and anxiety symptoms will worsen. Some parents don’t want their child to dwell on negative feelings but to move on quickly to being ok again. There is something to be said about not dwelling on the negative for too long, but we need to understand that children have not yet learned how to regulate emotions as effectively as adults. Being able to talk out negative feelings with a caregiver that listens, understands and then gives them a gentle push toward a coping strategy is what helps children to develop healthy emotion regulation skills.
Remind your child that it’s normal for them to feel worried, but that caregivers and teachers (name some examples) are there to protect them. You can remind them that it is not their job to worry, but to play and do schoolwork. Help them put things in perspective by reminding them that there are plenty of good things that happen every day that don’t make the news, and that even when scary things happen there are always helpers available. It is best not to promise that nothing bad will ever happen to them because you can’t actually control this. You can promise that you will protect them, and that there are many adults in their life to help with this, and that means they are safe.
Be aware of the hidden harm of avoidance
The desire to protect is a natural response, and sometimes we let our child skip out on an activity that is too scary for them e.g. going on a rollercoaster. However allowing children to skip activities such as attending school because they feel anxious can make the problem worse, and even lead to school refusal. This is because avoidance is a hallmark symptom of anxiety, and the treatment of anxiety involves gradual exposure to the anxiety-provoking situation. Inadvertently allowing children to continue to avoid feared situations will make them feel better that day or in the short -term, but will increase their anxiety in the long-term.
Routines are important
When a threat occurs, the way a child thinks about the world can change and it can feel like the world has been turned upside-down for them. Keeping the daily routine as normal and predictable as possible will help them to see that the world is still the same safe place they thought it was before the threat occurred. It is important to make sure that your child is getting enough sleep and to emphasise family connections. These factors reinforce the child’s ability to adapt to change.
Think about your own emotional reaction
Because you are role-modelling for your child how they should respond, it will help to make sure you manage your own emotions effectively. It is helpful to share with your child that you felt a bit frightened too, but it is important to move on to talking about the self-care strategies that you use. For example you could say “I feel worried about that too, lots of people would, and what do you think might be some good things for us to do together to feel better?”
Seek professional help
If you have allowed some time for things to settle down and you are still concerned about your child’s well-being, you can consider seeking professional help by talking to your GP.
Some signs that things are not settling can include: frequent watchful or withdrawn behaviour, a return to physical reassurance-seeking displayed at a younger age, or fixed beliefs about lack of safety that don’t seem to respond to the above strategies from a caregiver. These signs are normal responses to stress, but usually subside as time goes on, and if they don’t your child may benefit from further support.