- Listen to children's feelings of sadness, anger, helplessness, and confusion, and mirror or reflect how they feel. Tweet This
- Giving children something they can do to help those in need is the secret to helping them cope with the adversity. Tweet This
- The anxiety that accompanies seeing terrible events unfold should not be dismissed. Tweet This
Scenes of the humanitarian crises in Afghanistan are tragic and, as I’ve noticed in my psychotherapy practice, contributing to great distress and anxiety in many of us, including our children. Recently, one of my patients described how her daughter was feeling depressed and anxious about what is happening “to all of those poor people in Afghanistan” and “how scared the girls must be to lose their parents and to be sold off to the first Taliban soldier who wants a teenage bride.” The constant news coverage announcing how mass numbers of civilians who helped the U.S. government and military will likely be killed, as well as the focus on the abuse of women who will be stripped of their right to an education, are overwhelming for an adult to deal with, much less a child.
So, how can we help children to cope with this tragedy?
It is critical that parents are honest with children to a degree that they can handle the information developmentally. An adolescent can handle more than a young child, but even adolescents are vulnerable emotionally and neurologically to certain information and disturbing images. The anxiety that accompanies seeing terrible events unfold should not be dismissed. Anxiety is a response to feelings that are out of our control, which we feel we have little agency over. When we feel out of control completely, we break down. Human beings need some degree of control over the environment. When a baby cries and his parents do not pick him up, that baby screams louder. If the baby’s parents still do not respond, a baby becomes limp and depressed feeling that they have little or no control over their environment. Coping requires having some power in a powerless situation. Even when an adult gets a cancer diagnosis, the difference between an individual who becomes depressed and one who copes with it is a sense of hopefulness and belief that they are not powerless.
Giving children something they can do to help those in need is the secret to helping them cope with the adversity. When my patient who told me about her daughter’s anxiety asked, “What can I do?” my response was “give your daughter something she can do to help even one Afghani to get out of Afghanistan.” I encouraged her mother to support her 12-year-old daughter in writing letters to members of Congress and even organize her class to sign a petition to be sent to lawmakers, urging them to save an individual Afghani or a group of Afghan citizens at risk. Activism is full of hardship and disappointment, but it gives us some sense of control.
In addition, parents should limit the media exposure to the ongoing and never-ending news stream. It is challenging for us as adults to pull ourselves away from the scenes of mayhem and cruelty unfolding; however, it is necessary to limit our media exposure as well. Limiting children to minimal exposure based on their age is important.
In addition, parents should help children process everything they see and hear at home or at school. That means asking them what they know first and then asking them if they have any questions. Answer only what they ask and don’t overwhelm them with more information than they can handle. And always ask if they have any further questions.
Most importantly, parents should not overwhelm their children with their own anxiety about the crises. Parents should be self-aware enough or process their feelings with a spouse, therapist, or friends before speaking to their children. It is common for parents to overshare their own feelings of despair with a child, which can be overwhelming for kids and cause them to feel more anxious.
Equally important to giving children a sense of agency is to listen to their feelings of sadness, anger, helplessness, and confusion, and to mirror or reflect how they feel. For example, a parent can say: “I hear how angry you feel about what is happening”, or “you sound so sad,” or “you seem so overwhelmed by the stories you are hearing on the news.” Validate for children that they have a right to feel whatever they are feeling. Expressing feelings can help a child to cope, especially sharing those feelings with someone who loves and understands you.
The fall of Afghanistan is a terrible tragedy, and the failure of our government to protect the most vulnerable exacerbates that tragedy. The key to helping children cope can be taken from the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters and the upcoming Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety. She is also a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal Opinion Section.