As the nation is in the midst of a war and prepares for further
terrorist attacks, kids are naturally anxious. We live in
frightening times. And if adults are feeling a bit jittery about
current events, imagine how our kids must feel.
As the nation is in the midst of a war and prepares for further terrorist attacks, kids are naturally anxious.

We live in frightening times. And if adults are feeling a bit jittery about current events, imagine how our kids must feel.

Talk of impending war permeates the world around them. Newscasters proclaim yet another terrorism “color code” upgrade and suggest stockpiling bottled water and turning homes into bunkers. And thanks to the economy, Mom or Dad may be out of work-and wondering aloud how they’re even going to afford the much-vaunted duct tape!

Yes, children today have valid reasons to be plagued by anxiety. According to renowned consultant and educator Michele Borba, author of No More Misbehavin’: 38 Difficult Behaviors and How To Stop Them (Jossey-Bass: a Wiley imprint; March 28, 2003; $14.95/paper) – we can go a long way toward allaying our kids’ fears. Here are seven ways to help them (and you!) alleviate excessive anxiety:

Take anxiety seriously. Studies show that between 8 and 10 percent of American children are seriously troubled by anxiety.

Anxious kids are two to four times more likely to develop depression, and as teens they are much more likely to become involved with substance abuse. Stress symptoms are showing up in kids as young as three years of age. (And all of this was true even before anthrax and nuclear attacks became the subject of playground discussion.) The good news is that studies have shown that about 90 percent of anxious children can be greatly helped by learning coping skills. But if your child shows signs of anxiety for more than a few weeks (see next tip), seek professional help.

With younger children, try the TALK strategy. Whenever sad or frightening subjects are discussed with kids, Dr. Borba suggests parents include four important elements. Each part helps allay fears and anxiety and reassures children that their world is still safe. To help remember the parts, she offers the acronym, TALK; each part begins with a letter of the word:

T – Tune in to your child’s emotional state. Observe your child closely and watch to see how he is coping. For instance: is he afraid to be left alone or of being in dark or closed places, having difficulty concentrating or excessively irritable, reacting fearfully of any sudden noises, reverting to behavior patterns previously outgrown, acting out or having tantrums, having nightmares, bedwetting, withdrawing, crying excessively, or a experiencing a change in eating or sleeping habits?

A – Assure safety. The first priority is to assure your child that he is not in danger and that you are there to protect and keep him safe. Stress to your child that people are taking action to keep our country safe and help those who are injured: police, paramedics, military, firemen. Be available: give extra hugs, listen, and be there. Remember that kids who have been traumatized are more vulnerable.

L – Listen patiently. Kids need to know that it is okay to share their feelings with you and that it’s normal to be upset. Keep an on-going dialogue with your child. You don’t need to explain more than he’s ready to hear or use graphic descriptions. What’s most important is letting your child know you are available to listen.

K – Kindle hope and do something positive. One of the best ways to reduce feelings of anxiety and hopelessness is to help, kids find proactive ways to allay their fears. It also empowers kids to realize they can make a difference in a world that might appear scary and unsafe. For instance, help your child draw, write, or email to express their thanks to the military or rescuers.

Or set up a relief fund: kids can save allowance money, or do a fundraiser such as holding a bake sale or car wash, or setting up a lemonade stand.

Comfort Kids With Family Activities. In times of stress, your child needs to feel embraced by her family. That’s why it’s a good idea to spend plenty of time doing things together-it helps her feel safe and sends a “we’re all in this together” message.

Find tension-releasing activities the entire family can do together. For instance, go for walks or bike rides, pray or meditate, listen to soothing music or watch humorous videos. And engage in-or create-comforting family traditions: attend a religious service, hang the American flag, or light a nightly candle to signify your hopes for peace.

Teach Anxiety-Reducing Techniques. Anxiety is an inevitable part of life, but in times like these it can be overwhelming.

Kids can learn to use some of the techniques that adults use to cope with pressure. Here are a few:

“Self-talk.” Teach your child to say a statement inside her head to help her stay calm and handle the stress. Here are a few: “Chill out, calm down.” “I can do this.” “Stay calm and breathe slowly.” Or “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“Elevator breathing.” Tell your child to close his eyes, slowly breathe out three times, then imagine he’s in an elevator on the top of a very tall building. He presses the button for the first floor and watches the buttons for each level slowly light up as the elevator goes down. As the elevator descends, his stress fades away.

“Stress melting.” Ask your kid to find the spot in his body where he feels the most tension; perhaps his neck, shoulder muscles, or jaw. He then closes his eyes, concentrates on the spot, tensing it up for three or four seconds, and then lets it go. While doing so, tell him to imagine the stress slowly melting away.

“Visualize a calm place.” Ask your kid to think of an actual place he’s been where he feels peaceful. For instance: the beach, his bed, grandpa’s backyard, a tree house. When anxiety kicks in, tell him to close his eyes, imagine that spot, while breathing slowly.

Limit TV Time. Too much television is never good for kids. But when news reports of impending war, terrorism, and economic hardship dominate the airwaves, it’s especially important to monitor how much your kids are watching. If your kids do watch the news, draw their attention to stories of heroic and compassionate people; this is important to assure them that there’s more to the world than threats and fear. And certainly limit their exposure to violent shows-they tend to exacerbate existing anxiety.

Teach Kids Anger Management. Living in a war-obsessed world can send the message that aggression and violence are okay. This presents a big problem for parents. Even if your family supports war with Iraq, it’s important to draw the distinction that military violence does not mean it’s okay to hit on the playground. Here are a few of Borba’s tips for stopping aggressive behaviors in kids:

Teach them to express how they feel. Many kids display aggression such as kicking, screaming, hitting, and biting because they don’t know how to express their frustrations any other way. They need an emotion vocabulary, and you can help your kid develop one to say how he feels to his offender: “I’m mad.” Or: “I’m really, really angry.”

Reinforce peaceful behaviors. Anytime you notice your kid handling a difficult situation calmly, expressing his frustrations without hitting, biting, fighting, acknowledge his behavior and let him know you appreciate his efforts. “I noticed you were so mad, but you walked away to calm yourself. That’s really good.”

Teach your child 1 + 3 +10: a formula for self-control. First, tell yourself inside your head: “Be calm.” Second, take three deep, slow breaths from your tummy (Getting oxygen to your brain helps calm you down.). Now count slowly to ten inside your head. Put it all together it’s 1 + 3 + 10: a great formula for staying in control.

Discuss War & Politics As A Family. The constant media attention to the upcoming war creates many “teachable moments” for sharing your political views with your kids. (This applies to older children, of course!) Borba offers the following guidelines:

Establish some “Fair Family Fighting Rules.” If the discussion gets heated, adhere to the following rules: 1) no interrupting; 2) no put-downs; 3) everyone’s opinion counts; 4) take turns. Spell out rules ahead of time-and enforce them.

Let heated discussions illustrate the concept of “democracy.” Explain to your kids that many countries in the world would not allow such debates.

“Pay close attention to what kids have to say.” Debates are a great way to hear your kids’ level of moral reasoning, values, and understanding of events. Parents listen to their kids . . . just as their kids should listen to them.

“Mobilize as a family.” If your family agrees on the upcoming war (pro or con), take some sort of action. If you’re anti-war, then protest peacefully. If you’re pro-war, write supportive letters to President Bush. And either way, hang out the flag and write letters to our military overseas.

“It’s true that we live in uncertain times,” says Borba. “Life itself is uncertain. We shouldn’t shield our kids from this truth, but neither should we allow them to dwell on it, or view the world as an evil, dangerous place. Part of our job as parents is to help our children learn to live productively and happily in the real world, imperfect as it may be. And current events can be an effective catalyst for teaching that lesson.”

About the author: Michele Borba has worked with more than 750,000 parents and teachers over more than two decades. She is the author of 18 books including Building Moral Intelligence, Parents Do Make a Difference, and Esteem Builders. Her numerous awards include the National Educator Award, presented by the National Council of Self-Esteem.

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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