War, terrorist attacks, pandemic: how to tell children about it?

Pandemics, terrorist attacks, or war are all stressful events for adults, but not only. Children are far from being beyond the reach of our anxieties; on the contrary, they are very sensitive to them. To best protect them, Professor Richard Delorme, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Robert-Debreu Hospital (AP-HP), provides some clues to Science and the future.

Science and the future: lAre children more sensitive to stress than adults?

Professor Richard Delorme: Physiologically, children have patterns of stressful arousal from birth, although they are more immature. In the winter of 2021-2022, we conducted a survey to assess the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic among preschool and primary school children. The result is quite high, as 69% of them were already stressed at the beginning of the crisis in February 2020 and remained stressed throughout the crisis. Only 5-6% of them had reduced stress levels. Two-thirds of children are thought to have changed their behavior or emotions during the health crisis, consistent with previous births such as SARS in 2012. this stress.

How does anxiety manifest itself in children?

Signs vary greatly from one age group to another. In general, the younger the child, the more behavioral the symptoms, and the older the child, the more mentalized the symptoms. For example, toddlers will be more agitated, angry, regress in their acquisitions, have nightmares, wet the bed, sleep poorly, or no longer want to go to kindergarten or school. In older children, we are more likely to find apathy, irritability, they will eat less or more than usual, or talk more and more about stressful situations. The child, in particular, will be able to express his anxieties in his games, but will not be able to directly say that he is depressed or anxious. These symptoms are difficult to notice and parents often associate them with, for example, the birth of a younger brother or adolescence. In fact, this is a set of symptoms that need to be detected.

What to do if you notice signs of anxiety in your child?

The first question to ask is whether the child’s behavior has also changed in other familiar worlds, such as nursery or school. You need to talk to the children’s specialists who work there: did the child fall asleep in class, did his behavior change there as well? The second step is to see a therapist or pediatrician to discuss these issues. Children may feel isolated from their fears, bringing the topic up with professionals can calm them down. Sometimes simply starting a conversation allows the child to no longer feel alone with their anxiety and negative ideas.

For toddlers, parents can also spend more time with them. Playing with your child for 5 to 10 minutes every day is already a very good measure. Giving them a little more time, for example when bathing or during the ritual before going to bed, is very important. This is difficult for parents because their own stress makes them less patient and approachable, but they can also benefit from it. In this way, playing with a child can be a moment of relief in everyday life, enhancing the sense of parental competence.

First of all, keep in mind that anxiety doesn’t just affect your neighbor’s child. You must be vigilant and start a dialogue with the child. Also think about preventive measures: it is very important not to expose children to news channels on television or radio. This is really a critical moment, because these are programs that, even for adults, excite and fascinate at the same time.

“IIt is extremely important not to show children news channels on television.”

Attacks, a pandemic, war… Does a series of disturbing situations weaken a child or can tolerance develop?

In behavioral models, the repetition of stressful events is clearly a risk factor. The accumulation of stressors and the increase in the duration of their action increase stress. In the hospital where we see the most severe cases, we are already in a rather catastrophic situation in 2022. We are starting the year with +200% emergency room visits for suicide attempts among children under 15… Byein 2021, we were already between +116% and +299% compared to 2020, depending on the month. This is extremely worrisome. The 8-13 age group appears to be particularly vulnerable, as are girls. The latter account for 80% of suicide attempts, possibly because they are more vulnerable to domestic violence, which increased during incarceration, although this has yet to be confirmed.

We will soon receive valuable information about the impact of recent events on the mental health of children. The survey will take place in the summer of 2022 Enabi The French public health service, which in 2022 will include more than 30,000 children from kindergartens and primary schools.

Should we take the initiative or wait until the child has expressed his concern to talk about it with him?

Don’t wait for him to talk about it when there are signs of anxiety. If you think about it, know that your child has thought about it a thousand times before! Children experience stress in different ways, but perceive it very well. For example, in the first two months of the Covid-19 crisis, a quarter of children under the age of 10 were concerned about their parents’ financial future. Children are immediately projected into adult crises, but with their own eyes. It is all the more important to take the lead, since they have probably already heard about disturbing topics, such as war, at recess or in the classroom.

What words to use to calm the child?

You should use his own words and start by finding out what he knows by asking questions. “What do you know about this story?“,”Do you talk about it in class?This allows you to understand the vocabulary it uses and start from there, possibly clarifying what it should be. If you use your words and feelings, the child will be completely abandoned. Other recommendations:

  • Don’t underestimate the reasons for his concern.
  • Open dialogue at the height of the child’s skills, in accordance with his age and maturity, avoiding too harsh expressions.
  • Put yourself at his height and try to project him into hopeful and concrete things:you know, there’s some other hopeful thing, and then we’ll go to your grandparents this weekend, it’ll be good“. Because when we’re stressed, we stay focused on the object of that stress. The goal is to reintroduce hopeful everydayness, to remind you that something else is going on.
  • Be careful, you should not lie or say stupid things, but project yourself into specific things. The idea is to avoid anything that might force us to retreat later, such as a promise that the war will end soon.

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