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Healthy Talk Can Calm Children’s Fears
Richard Schwartzman, D.O.
The American College of Orgonomy

Parents are often advised to talk to their kids, but a meaningful conversation with children requires more than words - it requires contact.

If you haven't talked openly with your child about terrorism, it's not too late.

Parents have a vital role to play when children hear about frightening world events, such as the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the current bio-terrorism scare. Now, with the nation on highest alert for possible new attacks, parents can do much to allay their children's fears. But many parents are themselves anxious and don't quite know what to say to their kids. However, even the fearful parent can convey a sense of reassurance and calm.

The rational adult response to terrorism is to stand up to our anxiety and live our lives. We should fly, go places, do things, and not let ourselves get caught up in fantasies of what might happen. At the same time, we need to be aware of the real dangers that exist and take rational precautions. The perpetrators of terrorism want to produce panic, confusion and immobilization. We, for our children and for ourselves, must stand our anxiety and not become confused or immobilized.

A discussion with your child can reveal how he or she is responding to the information heard at school or on the playground. You are then able to correct misperceptions the child may have and be supportive by making the facts clear as you see them. You can't assume the teacher at school is calming your child's fears.

Parents are often advised to talk to their kids, but a meaningful conversation with children requires more than words - it requires contact. Contact refers to the ability of the parent to really hear and understand where the child is coming from, to get in tune with the child's emotions, and to respond in a way that nurtures and is helpful to the child's emotional well-being.

When engaging in any important conversation, timing is everything. When a parent asks a child what he or she did in school, the familiar response is "Nothing." The reason often is that kids come home tired, hungry, and wanting free time. They're usually as eager to leave the school day behind as we are to leave work behind. So shortly after the child's homecoming is not the time for a meaningful discussion. But once things have settled and people have eaten, when the television is off - that's the best time for a talk.

It needn't be a solemn conversation, where you sit the child down formally, but you might say, "What are you hearing in school about terrorism?" If the answer is "Nothin'," you follow up with "Really, there is nothing?" Flush it out, even if the child isn't interested in talking. The stern approach, "You tell me what they are saying to you!" doesn't work. To get someone to open up emotionally, you can't demand an answer. You have to give the message: I'm interested in what's going on. I really want to know. You might say, "Has all this stuff scared you, buildings destroyed, anthrax - where are you with all of this?" You really have to empathetically ask, and then be sensitive enough to perceive the quality of the response.

If your child says he isn't scared, and you get the feeling he means it, your child is okay. But if your child is afraid, it's important to talk about the fears and help put them to rest. If your child says he's scared, respond using the child's own words: "What are you scared of?" If the child says, "I don't know, I'm just scared," try to gently draw out specifically what is frightening him. Say, "Do you have some idea of what's scaring you?" or " What do you think might happen?" Encourage your child to discuss his fantasy - not what he necessarily believes is going to happen, but rather what he imagines could happen. Once your child starts talking, use the "then what?" approach to extend your child's thought process and ultimately dissipate his fears.

Child: "Somebody's going to put anthrax in the school."

Parent: "Then what?"

Child: "I don't know. Everybody will die."

Parent: "Then what? They would die right there?"

Child: "I guess they would get sick first."

Parent: "If you got sick, no one would call me?"

Child: "Maybe they would."

Parent: "You bet they would, and you bet I'd get you to a doctor and you'd be okay."

Irrational fears fall apart when you make them concrete. This kind of discussion can help your child recognize that you are in control of the situation and that his fears are exaggerated.

If you as a parent are not afraid, your courageousness will be transmitted to your child and be reassuring. But what if you are afraid? In this case your reassurances won't ring true and your child will sense it. You can't kid a kid. The fact is that many parents are fearful, with anxieties that are both rational and irrational. If you are afraid, it's okay to say so, but minimize it. You might say, "I'm concerned, like everyone is," then move on and be reassuring where you feel you honestly can be. You might point out that the family is not living in a high-rise building like the World Trade Center, or that the chance of getting anthrax is very slim, less than chance of getting hurt in an auto accident every time you ride in a car. In this way, even a fearful parent can project a sense of confidence.

There are two basic ways people approach life. One kind of person has a fundamental optimism. They feel that whatever happens, they'll handle it. The attitude is: "I'll make it. I'll be okay." Others have a more fearful, fatalistic view. Even if you fall in the negative category, it's best to project optimism to your child, regardless of what the terrorists might do next. The idea is transmit a positive message. Say, "If they do something, we'll do what we have to do to be okay."

You want your child to have the feeling that you, as the parent, will take care of business - that if something happens, mom and dad are going to do what's necessary to protect their child. The child's job is to go out and play and feel that everything is going to be all right.


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