With everything that’s going on in the world right now, you may find yourself wondering if your child worries about the news. News once aimed at adults and timed to air after younger kids went to bed now airs almost 24/7. Adults also receive constant news updates on their smartphones, or check social media to stay abreast of what’s going on in the world around them. And, in recent years, divisive figures on the political stage have made conversations about politics difficult to avoid, even if kids are present. All of these factors combine to make it much harder to keep children blissfully unaware of politics – even if they don’t understand everything they hear.
Meanwhile, studies show that a growing number of kids and teens suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. Some experts estimate that as many as one-third of children have anxiety or related conditions, including social phobia, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety. This combination of factors gives parents cause for concern, particularly in these uncertain times.
Anxiety and World Events
It’s well-known that adults stress out about the news, but researchers know little about the effect of the news and current events on children. That’s why Dr. Nicole Caporino, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at American University, set out to assess the level of anxiety children reported in response to current events. Researchers asked children and their caregivers about a range of issues, including gun control, the environment, and immigration.
Caporino and her team found that kids do indeed experience anxious thoughts surrounding the news and politics. And while this is concerning, the researchers concluded that the phenomenon itself may not be harmful to the average kid.
To some degree, worry is a normal part of the human experience. Worry or anxiety is a natural response to events that seem to threaten us or people that we care about. It can help us focus on solutions and evaluate possible courses of action.
Indeed, the anxious thoughts children reported to researchers often centered on their immediate world: themselves, their families, and their peers. For example, children expressed fear about Muslim classmates being bullied, or immigrant classmates deported. They worried about the environment and the effects of climate change on the future. They worried about gun violence and school shootings.
The researchers found these worries were more pronounced in kids who already had some form of anxiety disorder, and concluded that kids with clinical levels of anxiety may be at higher risk of suffering detrimental mental health effects from following the news. As for adults, the cost of excessive anxiety comes in many forms, including missed sleep, emotional distress, and the risk of more profound mental health problems down the road.
Treatment for Kids
What can you do when your child is worried or anxious about the news? And what if that child already has an anxious personality or suffers from clinical anxiety? Or what if your child exhibits concerning symptoms like disrupted sleep or difficulty focusing? And what if they express constant fear or despair?
First, don’t panic.
Kids take their cues from adults. You can remain a calm and reliable presence in your child’s life, which has enormous emotional benefits for them. Researchers have found that simply hearing a parent’s voice – even just over the phone – triggers the release of calming hormones in the brains of anxious children. And a recent study showed that, in many cases, a parent-based therapeutic regimen was just as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy for treating anxiety in children.
Second, keep in mind that talking to your kids can also provide a great source of comfort and information.
Anxious kids may blow worries out of proportion, or construct scenarios based on inaccurate or incomplete information. One child in the study quoted above expressed fears that members of his family would be kidnapped by the opposing political party. Such scary scenarios might occur to young kids as a result of combining imaginative elements from television, video games, and current events. While these fears may seem far-fetched to an adult, children lack the maturity and emotional coping skills to put them in perspective.
Finally, remember that treatment provided by a mental health professional can help kids with anxiety. But you can begin right away in your own home simply by talking to your children about their fears. Reassure them in concrete terms about the things they can feel sure of: their home, their family and friends, and your unconditional love.