By Tanu Shree Singh
‘Remember Peshawar?’ The younger one, now taller than six feet, whispered. I nodded. The older one messaged from his tuition place, ‘There is a procession being taken out. They are screaming all sorts of things.’
The older one is months away from being an adult and the younger one a tad bit over two years. Yet I see the same anxiety in their faces. The same frown that they had when they were a couple of years younger and had heard of terror attacks from school, or from news channels or the headlines that screamed. Now, they are way better informed. And they have the gory details.
Thankfully, now their information sources are newspapers and editorials. Earlier, the sources varied from a hurried glance at the headline to lunch break conversations with their equally-learned peers. It is tougher when they are younger. So what do we do? How do we heal the little ones? Do we give in to fear? It is, after all, a very real threat. Thankfully, resilience carries us through, and according to leading psychologists, we can help children learn to be resilient. How do we promote resilience then? I have tried the following and so far so good.
Choose age-appropriate words
While your toddler is blissfully unaware of the world outside his home, the older children stumble on all sorts of information rendering our ostrich-head-in-the-sand tactic completely useless. Protecting them gets tough and is entirely futile. They will find out. Hence, it is always a good idea to inform them about whatever is going on by using words and facts appropriate for their age.
The child would be worried, anxious and afraid. Do not brush it aside. For the child the fears are as real as they can be. In fact, when we tell them to chill, we are the ones living a delusional life! Let’s face it, terror can and does strike anywhere. So even though their fears might seem baseless, treat them with the seriousness that the child expects. Listen with honest attention. Then, without once calling the fear ridiculous, try to lay the fear at rest.
Encourage children to use their strengths
Resilience is not just acceptance of facts and then putting effort in bouncing back. It also involves exercising character strengths. According to a rich body of research, an individual who consciously exercises his strengths is happier and better adjusted. The VIA survey offers various tests for different age groups to discover one’s strengths. If the children are too young for it, observe them. Know what gives them true happiness and encourage them to do that in times of stress.
Routines are important
Routines sound boring and sometimes stir feelings of resentment. But, studies show that routines are a great source of security and comfort. Make sure, that in times of stress, the routine is maintained, right from homework to the bedtime story. Be there. The soothing presence of the parent goes a long way in healing and a familiar routine raises the psychological levels of security.
The younger one isn’t very vocal about his feelings. He expresses through his drawings, his choice of music and his silence. The older one is very comfortable talking to his grandmother once he is calmer. As a parent, I do not see this as my shortcoming. I use these channels. I have a ‘Santa mail account’ that I use to talk to the younger one, and Nani does a wonderful job at listening to the older one. The idea is for them to air their fears, and for us to help them deal with their anxieties. Where and how does not matter.
Say no to over-protectiveness
Let’s face it. As parents, we would make the world baby-safe, plugging each and every electrical outlet and covering sharp edges with foam. But the world’s sharp edges sometimes become the fertile grounds for learning. When we get over-protective in the face of fear, loss or grief, we reduce their capacity to learn to heal. Let them have age-appropriate freedom. Let them face emotional lows, and then help them learn to cope. The process of being resilient to bigger, more real threats is learnt through fairly smaller hurts and failures.
‘Mum, can it happen anywhere?’ That question echoed in my head for a long time, and my maternal instinct, in a futile bid to protect, wanted me to hug him and say, ‘Of course not.’ Instead, I hugged him and said, ‘It can happen anywhere. And so can a lot many other things but we cannot let fear take over our lives, can we?’ Then a conversation followed about real fears and surreal assumptions. Saying that bad things cannot happen, threatens our position as a trusted adult. Being honest, giving facts minus the gory, overwhelming details, is way more reassuring.
Exercise emotional control
While watching the news, like all others, I choked, felt seething rage and searing pain. My emotional reactions are a cue to the children to judge balance in their world. I remember as a child, getting injured, and yet feeling in control on seeing my father’s calm face and hearing his soothing voice as he cleaned the wounds with antiseptic lotion. So if we break down, they break down. Maintain an honest brave front before them. If you need to pretend, take time out, wash your face, talk to a friend, and then get back to donning that cape.
Dry statements about what happened rarely help. Rather than telling them, ask them. Lay out the facts and then discuss. Starting with what they heard at tuition, or on TV is a good idea. Try to separate facts from fiction together. If they come home with wrong information, offer facts rather than starting with ridicule for friends.
Sometimes the impact that terror attacks have are far graver than just an escaped tear. If the child displays changes in behaviour, like sleep disturbances, excessive clinginess, change in eating patterns, lack of concentration, and an overall darkness of mood, it is a good idea to seek professional guidance. Any persistent changes that are observed, and cannot be attributed to natural growth, should be taken seriously, and professional help should be considered. Resilience should never be assumed. Just because they are kids doesn’t mean that they will bounce back soon enough.
‘Mumma, did you read the accounts of their families?’
I held him tighter.
‘Why do people do this?’ His voice betrayed the teenaged calmness that he was trying to project.
I have no answers to whys. We shall try and seek them together. Meanwhile, all he needs is a hug, a promise of a goodnight cuddle and hope for a better future.
(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)