Troubling Times: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Understand and Confront Adversity

By Joanne Foster and Dona Matthews.

Parents and teachers sometimes find children preoccupied by very serious and worldly matters. Even young children will think about illness, death, war, the fury of Mother Nature, or the complexities of the human condition, and this may occur long before they are able to fully grasp the ideas and put them into perspective. The kinds of worries and fears that children grapple with become more frightening when the adults they know can be heard talking or possibly whispering about problems such as terrorism, gun violence, pandemics, or natural disasters. Indeed, disturbing occurrences (outbreaks, forest fires, hurricanes, evacuations, and so on) have affected countless numbers of adults and children around the globe. Children, and in particular those who are knowledgeable about news events, well-read, or astute, can experience troubling thoughts and feelings. Despite (or maybe because of) their intelligence or insightfulness they might find it difficult to cope with their fears and misgivings. They may see that many of their peers are far more focused on their own day to day activities, or they are not as interested in upsetting events. The adults in their lives may not be willing or adequately prepared to discuss matters with them. It can sometimes be a struggle for children to put their apprehension into words, to share concerns, to get past a sense of isolation, or to calm a gut feeling that for some reason (perhaps beyond anyone’s comprehension) the world seems more troubled now.

Children may be young and comparatively inexperienced but that does not mean they lack sensitivity or the ability to understand matters, especially when given appropriate help to do so. Cognitive development is complicated, and people learn, grow, and come to comprehend things at different times in their lives—with depth, breadth, rate, and direction quite variable, and importantly dependent on an individual’s opportunities to learn. This is also quite variable, as one might imagine. Parents and teachers have to recognize and respect this variability. Moreover, children are often motivated to learn more about whatever troubles them. Motivation is complex—there are different types, degrees, underlying reasons, and outcomes. Adults should be careful not to dismiss or trivialize children’s desire to learn, or minimize their levels of understandings, but rather enable those understandings, ease their discomfort, and support their desire to learn more, even when a particular area of interest is one that is difficult for people to confront or reconcile. It is a good idea to provide suitable learning opportunities and resources while still acknowledging that some matters or circumstances are not always easily understood.

Parents and teachers who offer a safe and dependable environment, active listening, and open communication, are on track to support children’s emotional well-being. Regardless of a child’s age, temperament, ability, exceptionality or concern, adults should respond to individual development and to intense reactions to worldly occurrences by working honestly, and collaboratively with children to bring some sensibility to situations that may seem volatile or senseless. How can parents and teachers provide the kinds of support necessary to help children during troubling times?

To begin with it is important that adults wrestle with their own anxieties and emotional responses to adversity. This means thinking carefully about what is disturbing, and what strategies are useful to get past the worry or unsettling circumstances. Thoughtfully working through the process of how to deal with such matters can heighten awareness of how to help children cope with and overcome their troubling thoughts and concerns. Adults who ask themselves questions about what really matters to them and why, and how or if they can improve things, are better positioned to help children do the same. By establishing clear lines of communication between adults and children, and home and school, parents and teachers can help to shape children’s perceptions in informed ways. However, remember that children may not think parents and teachers are approachable or receptive when perceived as upset, distracted, condescending, or harried and this can inhibit open dialogue and connectivity. Being approachable is the first step toward being approached.

What follows are numerous suggestions for effective, responsive adult-child interaction in times of trouble, and ways to promote children’s emotional well-being. Although the strategies have been divided into two areas of focus (for parents and teachers) this is presented as such for purposes of reference simplicity, and we encourage flexible application of these recommendations in the context of home and school.

Ways Parents can help children

· Listen, really listen, to children’s questions. Pay attention to their words, hear what they are asking, and be attuned to what they are not asking (but might want to know). Show genuine interest in their concerns.

· Value their opinions.

· Consider issues sensitively, one at a time. Be honest, and respond with only as much detail as the child is able to handle. Children’s cognitive levels differ with age, development, and personal experience.

· Provide resources that are suited to a child’s level of understanding. Stretch that by offering assistance, especially if the child is keen to learn more.

· Help children focus on what they can do to help a situation. For example, participating in hurricane readiness or relief efforts, or local fundraising initiatives. This kind of involvement, when age-appropriate, can prevent children from becoming fixated on finding solutions that are beyond their capacity due to age and expertise.

· Emphasize the joys, reason, and goodness within the world.

· Emphasize the resilience of people.

· Discuss the importance of tolerance and relationship-building. There are many resources available in print and online, and educators and librarians can work with you to find those that best fit the individual and situation at hand.

· Be sure to take stock of your own feelings before attempting to address children’s concerns. This will help to ensure that you are and will remain calm.

· Encourage children to play. They should continue to be active and to maintain balance in their lives. They may need to be reassured that if they have fun it does not mean they lack sensitivity to the misfortune of others.

· Help children to appreciate the value of self-expression in the form of art, music, or journal or poetry writing. These can be wonderful outlets for conveying