My 7-year-old son has recently started becoming upset and worried about bad things going on in the world. He says he thinks bad things will happen to our family, and recently wondered aloud why ‘Daddy can’t stay at home like me, then we would all be safe together.’ My husband travels quite a lot. How can I put his mind at rest?
Children’s imaginations are quite limitless; they whizz around all over the place in a blur of creativity and intrigue. All this action culminates in their own small universe being made up of layers of learning, mystery, fun, fantasy and family. It’s little wonder the way they perceive the world and where they fit in to it differs hugely from that of an adult. Consequently, when a child starts to become aware of wider issues going on in the world, they do not have the depth of understanding yet to contextualise these stories beyond themselves. So, they are only equipped to slot these concerns into their own small ‘life-space’. Which can be a big burden for a small person.
Children pick up on all sorts of things, but process the information they are presented with in an entirely different fashion to how an adult would. They draw on their own limited life experiences and will naturally adapt and compartmentalise what they see and hear.
To begin with (and this may sound obvious) you need to monitor what information he is been exposed to - when, where and how. As he gets older he will start to absorb a great deal more of what he’s exposed to. It’s also vital that all adults remember to try and keep their own concerns under control around children.
I’ve found that anxiety has a habit of spreading. Children naturally take the lead from their parents and the significant adults around them. So, it’s normal that when an adult becomes afraid and anxious, the child picks up that there must be something wrong and in turn it must be something for them to worry about as well.
It’s a fact of parenting, that sometimes there are things they need to know about and other times they do not. As the choice-maker, striking the ‘correct’ balance between keeping them safe and keeping them informed is always tricky and often complicated.
On the one hand, there’s a danger that small inconsequential things to an adult can manifest themselves as something much bigger to the young fertile imagination. On the other, something vital and important may be overlooked that they really should be aware of. Nevertheless, the main thing is for you to control this information.
It’s also important to try and alleviate his concerns about what may or may not happen in the future – by helping your child to ‘live in the moment’. When they speculate about the future, you can explain that it isn’t ‘real’ because it hasn’t happened. You can elaborate further and describe how even if things do happen, we’ve experienced these things previously and that everything worked out. The key word to focus on is ‘now’, the here and now, you’re safe right now, everything is ok right now. Now is real and now is immediate, children can relate to now because it’s what they are most familiar with.
Use language they can easily understand and identify with, for example “yes there were some men who became very angry and wanted to hurt people, but the nice police stopped them and they are working very hard to make everyone safe, so you don’t have to worry”.
Tell him as a family we care for and think about people who have experienced sad things, but also explain that the likelihood of anything untoward happening to your family is so remote it isn’t worth him thinking about.
Finally, one piece of information he should know about; it’s that Daddy must to go to work and needs to be away from time to time, he does this for us and that’s how we can have our nice life. Explaining that lesson early will serve as a positive foundation in an uncertain world.