Children and anxiety - what parents should keep in mind

March 10, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

If you are watching the latest disturbing news on television, your child is probably hearing it too, even if the child is not in the same room, a Funkstown Elementary School teacher said this week.

And if you find news about world events troubling and confusing, just try to imagine how your child feels, said Rebecca Collinson, a reading teacher at Funkstown Elementary School.

Collinson and several local mental health professionals contacted last week said parents should talk to children about their feelings and try to answer any questions they have, including about war and terrorism.


Collinson suggests parents ask, "I know you are hearing this. Are you worried?" They should have this conversation even if they don't think their children seem anxious and stressed, she said.

The mental health professionals said children usually notice when their parents become more anxious and nervous and that change confuses and concerns them.

"As adults become more nervous and show they are becoming more anxious, then the students will take the reading from the adults, whether they are parents or teachers," said Paul Wolverton, a Washington County Board of Education psychologist.

If the people in the children's lives who usually make them feel more secure are now acting different, they will wonder why and need that feeling of reassurance, said Wolverton, who is also crisis team leader for Washington County Schools.

"They don't know what is going to happen," Collinson said. Even though adults know Iraq is far from the United States, children wonder, "could it happen here?" she said.

Collinson said students she works with at school are less focused than usual on their tasks. This probably frustrates teachers, who don't realize their students are trying to comprehend some of what they are seeing and hearing.

Parents should listen to what children are saying, not just to the parents but to others because sometimes those comments are clues about their thoughts and feelings, said Mike Shea, administrative director for Behavior Health Services of Washington County Hospital. This information will help when the adults sit down to talk to the children, he said.

Bring the issue up when it seems like a natural transition, such as while watching the news together, rather than making it an abrupt topic change because that itself could alarm them, Shea said.

Children will often ask good, legitimate questions such as: "Are they going to bomb us? Are they going to attack us?" Wolverton said.

Remember that since children often don't know geography, they don't understand that Iraq is far from Hagerstown, Wolverton said. Explain that distance to them and that the chances of danger to them are remote, he said.

But be careful not to overwhelm your children with too much information, he said.

Reassure them that you and others love them and will take care of them as much as possible, Collinson said.

But adults also need to be careful not to make promises about matters they can't control, such as the war and terrorism, Shea said.

Tell them, "I hope nothing happens," for example, but don't promise there will be no more terrorist actions, he said.

Some children will have friends who have a parent possibly going to fight the war and will be struggling to understand the significance and meaning of that change, Shea said.

While it may be tempting to tell your child that nothing bad happen will happen to the friend's parent, you should resist that urge, he said.

But don't be so afraid of making promises you can't keep that you are not providing sufficient reassurance, Wolverton said.

Remind them that steps are taken in their daily life, such as always letting their parents know where they are, to try to ensure their safety.

Anxiety indicators

These are possible indicators that a child or adult's level of anxiety has increased, according to mental health professionals:

  • Change in sleep habits.

  • Change in appetite.

  • Increased irritability.

  • Stomach and chest problems such as heartburn.

  • Headaches.

  • Depression or sadness.

  • Becomes more withdrawn and less social.

  • On edge or easily startled.

  • Memory or focus problems.

  • Feeling angry and resentful.
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