I never thought that I would ever hear a parent say, “My child doesn’t want to go to Disney World, what do I do?” But I heard just that yesterday in response to the Orlando shooting. And then today, a client’s mother shared with me that her son was “very upset” after learning about the toddler that was attacked by an alligator at a Disney World hotel.
As a child psychologist, I mainly address the developmental, emotional and behavioral struggles of children, but sometimes the realities of the world enter the therapy space — events that are outside a child’s control and are upsetting.
This week, two such events occurred in Orlando, and although my sampling is small as a clinician in private practice, I imagine that there are a number of children throughout the country who are also feeling uneasy about traveling to Orlando after what has just occurred. Which makes this a perfect time for parents to help their children learn how to deal with scary things that happen.
Anxiety as a reaction to uncontrollable external events such as natural disasters, terrorism attacks or animal attacks is understandable inasmuch as the need for safety and security is a very real human and universal need. And that’s even more so for younger children who do not possess the internal resources — intellectual or emotional — to understand, make sense of or tolerate complex topics such as terrorism or natural disasters or tragedies. Orlando is now the most recent challenge for our children; visiting what many would consider to be the most child- and family-friendly place on the planet has triggered anxiety.
Upsetting life events are often beyond our control, but as parents, we have a duty to protect and inform our children when bad things happen. Here is what I recommend to parents on how to talk to their children about things beyond our control.
1. Check your anxiety level before talking to your children about upsetting news. Children can be very perceptive to how their parents are feeling, so make sure you are calm, reassuring and confident if and when you choose to discuss upsetting topics.
2. Consider your audience. Regardless of the concerning or upsetting information we as parents receive via the media, we must always be mindful of what our children are capable of handling before discussing things. Thus, your child’s age, maturity level and threshold for worry/anxiety are all things to consider before discussing terrorism. Just as you would not discuss tragic natural disasters or death in the same way with 4-, 8- or 16-year-old children because of developmental differences, you would not do the same for the topic of ISIS with your children of varying ages. In my opinion, parents should shield children 5 and younger altogether from complex and upsetting topics. Parents should also alert older siblings to watch what they say around their younger brothers or sisters.
3. Teach your children about upsetting events. By educating your children about natural disasters, tragedies or terrorism, they will understand things better, which in turn will serve to decrease their anxiety. It is important to be clear and accurate with the information you share, and keep your points and message simple. With terrorism for older children, for example, you could discuss the history of particular groups and what started the reactions. For a younger child, simply introducing the concept of good vs. evil is a way to help the child begin to understand why people sometimes do bad things in the world. Using movie characters or actual events that may have occurred in your child’s life (e.g., a bullying episode) may also prove helpful. For children 8 years and older, the Newseum in Washington has a wonderfully informative exhibition, “Inside Today’s FBI.” It explores the ways in which the bureau is fighting terrorism and cybercrime. From 9/11 to the Boston Marathon bombing and various other crimes and cybercriminals, older children and teens can learn about terrorism via the mixed media and actual artifacts from those tragedies.
4. Minimize your children’s exposure to the media. Turn off the news! News agencies have been on fire with the Orlando nightclub shooting and the alligator attack. And while these events are certainly newsworthy, such widespread exposure can cause increased anxiety for our children.
5. Put an action or emergency plan in place within the home. Having an action plan will help your child to get a sense of control, which in turn should also serve to diminish anxiety. Having a list of emergency numbers and making sure doors and windows are locked at night or when leaving the home are a couple of things you can do with your children. Also, having food and water for at least 72 hours is recommended, as well as having other sorts of supplies (e.g., a working flashlight, a first-aid kit, cash, etc.). The American Red Cross sells premade emergency kits, for example. It is also important to remind your children to be vigilant of their surroundings and to know how to discuss and report any out-of-the-ordinary situations.
6. Do not give in to fear. Okay, so Orlandophobia is not an actual disorder, but the happiest place on Earth has been overshadowed by horrific terror and tragedy this past weekend, which has created a very real sense of a lack of safety and anxiety for some. In moments like this, it is important to keep things in perspective and to not give in to irrational thoughts and feelings. The magic of Disney World has touched the hearts of billions of children since 1971, and there is presently no information to support the position that Disney World is unsafe or that Orlando should be avoided. In fact, Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World have all reportedly ramped up their security in response to the events, so the parks are likely safer than ever. So, if you were planning to do something wonderful this summer, it is still yours to enjoy. Make some memories and the fears will melt away.
Michael Oberschneider is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services and a child psychologist.
You might also be interested in: