These days, the innocence of childhood is more fleeting than ever

In recent weeks, a man armed with an automatic weapon shot and injured 10 people in a subway car in New York. It shut down the entire subway system in New York.

Images of horror fill newspapers and television news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

My 5-year-old granddaughter, Layla, attends a pre-school in Seattle. The teachers performed a drill with the children on how to evade an “an active shooter.” She told me about it when I picked her up at the end of the day. Her questions broke my heart. She wondered, “Why would someone come to school and hurt us?” These days the innocence of childhood is fleeting. It makes me sad.

A few days later my daughter had a talk with her about “stranger danger.” My granddaughter is extraordinarily friendly. She says hello to practically everyone she walks by. Her mom talked to her about never going anywhere with a stranger. “But what if she’s a mom?” asked Layla. It’s hard to answer her questions.

When I was a child, we had drills in school to respond to a nuclear attack. We had to get under our desks and cover our eyes. It seemed silly to me at the time. How would a desk protect us from a nuclear bomb?

Unfortunately, in these times, we must explain to very young children a grab bag of danger — COVID-19, active shooters, stranger danger and war.

So how do we broach these perilous subjects? How do we answer the heart-breaking questions of innocent children?

Look for teachable moments. Young children are filled with questions about what they hear and see. They’re little sponges, soaking up tidbits of adult conversations. The walls really do have ears. When your child has a question, it’s helpful to ask them what they think, what worries them, and how they might respond. Use metaphors appropriate to their age.

It’s important to keep adult discussions about world events away from young children. Make sure they don’t see television news. They hear and see everything—even if they seem to be absorbed in doing something else.

Children worry about their safety. Exposure to the news of the world hits home for little kids. They worry about their own safety. What will happen to them? Reassure them they’re safe. A war that is 5000 miles away seems like it might be happening in their neighborhood. Children want to feel safe and secure.

Help children develop the skills to cope with fear and worry. The pandemic has brought a rainstorm of fear and worry that has been very hard for adults to manage. Adult nervous systems are on edge from a wide range of concerns. We’ve all been challenged to cultivate inner peace in this maelstrom. Fear and worry do not disappear after childhood.

Children need tools appropriate to their age. Listening to music, singing, art, and creative play are all ways for children to work out their worries. Parents can help with back rubs, quiet time, and teaching kids simple and quick breathing techniques. It’s important to encourage children to express their worries and for us to listen and acknowledge them. Telling children “Not to worry” is no more effective for kids as it is for adults.

The world we live in. None of us retain the innocence of childhood—not because of a failure of parenting, but because the world is complex, ever changing, and at times, dangerous. This has been true since the beginning of time. What we can do is to cultivate hope, optimism, and resilience alongside teaching children how to take care of themselves.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. healthwellness-library.html.

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