QUESTION: My nine-year-old daughter
is too terrified to go to sleep at night because she thinks someone
will "get her." With all of the horrible crimes that she hears in
the news media, I can't tell her that nothing will happen to her.
She tells me that bad things happen all the time to innocent people.
What can I do?
ANSWER: By this age, children begin
to experience themselves as more separate from their parents. Social
institutions, such as schools, play an increasingly important role
in their development outside of the family. Simultaneously, death
is considered for the first time, with a more realistic understanding
that life ends. It is natural for a child of this age to be preoccupied
with death as they grapple with this new sense of separation and more
accurate realism. While still embraced in the protective home and
family environment, they become increasingly aware of their own and
their parents' vulnerability. Still, there are things you can do,
as a parent, to make this period less stressful for your child.
As you have discovered, your nine-year-old no longer
accepts blanket reassurances from you. Instead, your reassurance must
be more realistic and specific. First, ask your daughter to discuss
with you exactly what is bothering her. Talk with her about any news
stories that concern her and share with her your reactions. Reflect
her feelings of sadness, anger or fear.
Secondly, consider talking with your daughter about
efforts that may be taken to change the future for others and the
concern that other adults share for the situation. Let her know she
is not alone in her fears or in the attempts of others to make changes
for a safer society. If appropriate, name such organizations like
the Polly Klaas foundation and relay stories to her about children
who have escaped harm, too. She will need your perspective to understand
that although you cannot absolutely protect her, it remains unlikely
(statistically) that she would be harmed.
Do not refrain from talking about strategies she can
use to keep herself safe, too. Enrolling her in a self-defense program
or some other activity that allows her to channel her fear into action
can also help her through this period and teach her valuable skills.
Eventually, she will accept the message that the world
can be a scary place, but that there are ways she can protect herself,
too. What is important is that your child does not become so overwhelmed
by identification with becoming a victim that she is unable to develop
a sense of her own empowerment.
This leads us to a related question: How do we protect
our children from a flood of anxiety over the latest breaking news
on the radio, or TV? The good news is that parents are the filter
through which our children process worldly experience. They will accept
our realistic comfort and our direction.
It is inevitable that our children will hear upsetting
stories, but do not make a habit of watching the news with your child
present on a daily basis -- and certainly not before bedtime. Turn
your television off at these times!
If your daughter watches the news, talk to her about
what she has heard. Always watch it together. Like any television
programming, you should know what your child is viewing. Children
do not have the defense filters that adults have developed to process
information. They can become fixated and emotionally plagued by news
stories or images of realistic depictions of violence. Fact or fiction,
violence can be highly disturbing to young minds. Although you cannot
eliminate her exposure to the the fact that bad things happen, you
can help her to slow the input of information down.