When an event or situation causes anxiety and tension in a child, he or she tries to understand what is happening and why it is happening. The less a child is able to understand the situation, the more tension, anxiety, and fear they will experience. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed, out of control, and helpless. Depending on the circumstance, there may also be feelings of shame, depression, and guilt. A child may be unable to verbally express their fears or may be afraid to express them. When preparing yourself to help a child deal with life-changing events, it is helpful to consider the following:
- Children tend to be self-centered. This is especially true of young children and adolescents. They seem to interpret things as if the world revolves around them-everything is taken personally. Because of this they may interpret themselves as being the cause of something that they have no power or control of, which can be overwhelming.
- Children tend to interpret things in a literal or concrete manner. This can cause a crisis via misunderstanding. For example, telling a child that death is like sleep, or having medical or dental procedure won’t hurt because they will be knocked out. What the parent means and how the child interprets such statements are likely to be different.
- Fantasy is reality for children. For example, one parent is seeking divorce and the child fears that they will also be abandoned or divorced by this parent. Sometimes a child experiences a form of fantasy and magical thinking, which means that a child has a belief that they had the power to make something happen by thinking about it. An example of this is when a child is angry and thinks or says, “I wish you were dead” and someone is harmed in some way. They may believe that harm came to the person because of their thoughts or wishes.
- The devastating effect of childhood loss or separation. When a child loses or is separated from a friend, pet, parent, loved one, etc their foundation is temporarily shattered. Losses are a threat to feeling safe and secure. Losses can involve feelings such as sadness, depression, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, anger, guilt, and confusion.
Because life has a normal level of stress and changes, it’s impossible to hide from children from all the problems that confront a family. Children are very sensitive and can feel when things aren’t right at home. Therefore, instead of allowing a child to interpret what is going on it is better to give them age-appropriate information in a manner that helps them maintain their feelings of safety and security. The best thing you can do for a child in crisis is to create a safe space for them to process difficult emotions. If you find it especially challenging to help your child effectively navigate through life’s tough times, consider seeking the help of a licensed counselor or therapist. Click here for more information.