Parenting advice to reduce our kids’ worries about a sometimes mean, scary, unpredictable world and curb the growing “Mean World Syndrome”
Terrorism. ISIS. Bombings. Beheadings. War. School shootings. Pedophiles. Cyberbullying. Kidnappings. Global warming. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Sexual abuse. It’s a scary world out there for us, but how do you think the kids are faring?
Let’s face it-we live in frightening, unpredictable times. But if you are feeling a bit jittery about violence, turbulent weather conditions, current events, or a troubled economy, imagine how our kids must feel. Talk of uncertain times permeates the world around them. Graphic television images of real disasters and terrifying events just reinforce their fears.
Think about it: this is the first generation of children who have watched broadcasts of war, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school massacres in their own living rooms. Make no mistake: the image of the world as a mean and scary place is affecting our kids’ well-being. In fact, George Gerbner coined the term “Mean World Syndrome” describe a phenomenon when violence-related content in the mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. And that syndrome seems to be one that our kids are catching.
Our Teens Weigh In About the Concerns For Our World
I worked with the schools in Hershey, Pennsylvania recently. It is a glorious Norman Rockwell-type community. Picture perfect. Idyllic. Just plain wonderful. Street lamps are actually shaped like Hershey kisses. I spent time talking to students groups as I always do before addressing the parents, community and staff. It’s my way of getting a pulse on teen concerns. I always ask the principals to give me a sample of the students so the focus group represents all genders, races, cliques, economics. I end up with a homecoming princess, a jock, a band kid, a theater student, a student council leader, a misfit. Kids. Just kids. And do they ever open up when they know someone is there to really listen. “What are your concerns?” I ask them. And those teens began to share their worries:
“Terrorism.” “I’m afraid of traveling.” “How dose know if we’re safe?”
“My grades.” “I don’t know if I’ll get the scholarship.” “I don’t want to let my parents down.” “Peer pressure.” “I don’t know if I’ll get into college,” they said.
“And what are your worries outside of this town?” I asked. “What concerns you about the world?”
The kids are in non-stop mode now and I’m running out of space just trying to jot down their concerns:
“Iraq.” “Iran.” “Global warming.” “Power storms!” “Terrorism.” “Violence.” “Prejudice.” “Sexual predators.” “Recession.” “Getting a job.” “Our future.”
Their “worry list” goes on and on. Then one boy stops us all with his question:
“Do you think we’ll ever live to see the future?,” he asks quietly. “I worry about that a lot. I don’t think our generation will.”
The look on every teen’s face says it all. Each child had the same concern. The fear on their faces has haunted me.
The Kids Are Worried Folks
We think kids don’t think about such “big” worries. Wrong. Those teens are no different than the hundreds of other teen focus groups in this country. And here’s proof.
A survey conducted by MTV and The Associated Press of over 1300 teens nationwide found that only 25 percent feel safe from terrorism or traveling.
The vast majority of teens admitted that their world is far more difficult than the world their mom or dad grew up in. Just consider a child growing up today vs. yesterday. In 1950s a survey found that our children’s biggest fears were loud noises, snakes, insects, and a parent’s death. Fast forward fifty years later. The most pressing kid stressor today is still a parent’s death, but “violence” has now replaced loud noises and snakes. But the biggest fear many teens report today: “I’ll never live to see the future.” It hurts just to hear their top concern.
The New “Mean World Syndrome”
The fact is constantly hearing about troubling world events does more than just increase children’s anxiety. It also alters their view of their world. Many child experts are concerned that today’s children are developing what is called “Mean World Syndrome.” It means our children perceive their world as a “Mean and Scary Place.” Of course we can’t protect our kids and assure their safety, but we can help allay those fears and see their world in a more positive light.
Studies have shown that about 90 percent of all anxious children can be greatly helped by learning coping skills.
Here are a few parenting strategies you can use to help reduce your kids’ anxiety particularly in these uncertain times and help them develop a more positive outlook about their world.
Tips to Curb Kid Worries About a Scary, Unpredictable World
1. Tune In
Start by observing your child a bit closer when a frightening event occurs. Looks for marked and sudden changes from your child’s normal behavior~particularly if those changes last.
Is your child afraid to be left alone or of being in dark or closed places?
Does he have difficulty concentrating or is he excessively irritable?
Does she react fearfully to sudden noses, revert to immature behavior patterns, act out or have tantrums, or nightmares?
Is he bedwetting, withdrawing, crying excessively, or a experiencing a change in eating or sleeping habits?
Each child copes differently, so tune into your child’s behavior. Doing so will help you recognize how your son or daughter deals with life’s pressures and know when you should help to reduce those worries.
2. Monitor Scary News
Limit your child’s viewing of any news that features an alarming event (such as a kidnapping, pedophiles, war footage, bombing, etc). Monitor. Monitor. Monitor! Studies show that seeing those violent images exacerbates anxiety and increases aggression in some kids and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in others. Don’t assume because your kid is older, the news does not affect him.
A Time/Nickelodeon study found that preadolescents said that those TV news bulletins that interrupt regular programming were especially disturbing. They admitted being even more anxious if a parent wasn’t there to help explain the event to them.
If your kids do watch the news, watch with them to answer their questions. Be there! Also, monitor also your conversation with other adults so your kid doesn’t overhear your concerns.
3. Keep Yourself Strong
Don’t expect to be able to help allay your kids’ anxiety, unless you keep your own in check.Are you watching what you eat and reducing anxiety-increasers such as caffeine and sugar, exercising, getting enough rest, seeking the support of friends, or spending a quiet moment alone?
Remember, you can tell your kids you’re not worried about those world events or a troubled economy, but unless your behavior sends the same message your words have no meaning.
Our parenting priority must be to keep ourselves so we can keep our kids’ strong. That means we need to reduce our harried, hurried schedules so can model calmness to our kids. So just cut out one thing–be it the book club, the violin lessons, or cooking the “gourmet dinner” every night. Just reduce one thing! Your kids mirror your behavior and will be calmer if you are calmer.
4. Be Emotionally Present
Don’t assume because your child isn’t talking about the latest news tragedy or the recession, that he isn’t hearing about it. Chances are he is and he needs to get the facts straight. You are the best source for that information. Your child also needs to know that it is okay to share his feelings with you and that it’s normal to be upset. You might start the dialogue with a simple: “What have you heard?” or “What are your friends saying?” You don’t need to explain more than your child is ready to hear. What’s most important is letting your child know you are always available to listen or answers his concerns.
5. Do Something Proactive As a Family
One of the best ways to reduce feelings of anxiety is to help kids find proactive ways to allay their fears. It also empowers kids to realize they can make a difference in a world that might appear scary or unsafe. Put together a “care package” to send to a soldier overseas (sunscreen, writing paper and pens, CDs, magazines and a hand-written note of appreciation). Adopt the elderly neighbor and bring her a batch of homemade cookies. Or have your kids help you send “hugs” (a teddy bear, crayons, coloring book) to a child who has just lost all her earthly possessions in a flood, tornado, fire or other natural disaster.
6. Pass on Good News Reports
Draw your child’s attention to stories of heroism and compassion – those wonderful simple gestures of love and hope that people do for one another (that seem to always be on the back page of the paper). Find those uplifting stories in the newspaper and share them with your child. A wonderful time to review them is write before your child goes to sleep.
You can also encourage your kids to watch for little actions of kindness they saw others do and report them at the dinner table. Many families call those “Good News Reports.” For instance, in any act of horror, there are always moments of goodness. Point out the helpers! The rescuers. The kind-hearted.
It’s important to assure your children that there’s more to the world than threats and fear. Your actions can make a big difference in helping to send them that message.
7. Teach Anxiety-Reducing Techniques
Anxiety is an inevitable part of life, but in times like these those worries can be overwhelming. Here are just a few techniques you can help your child learn to use to cope with worries:
• Self-talk. Teach your child to say a statement inside her head to help her stay calm and handle the worries. Here are a few:
“Chill out, calm down.”
“I can do this.”
“Stay calm and breathe slowly.”
“It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“Go away worry. You can’t get me!”
• Worry melting. Ask your kid to find the spot in his body where he feels the most tension; perhaps his neck, shoulder muscles, or jaw. He then closes his eyes, concentrates on the spot, tensing it up for three or four seconds, and then lets it go. While doing so, tell him to imagine the worry slowly melting away. Yoga or deep breathing exercises seem to be helpful for girls.
• Visualize a calm place. Ask your kid to think of an actual place he’s been where he feels peaceful. For instance: the beach, his bed, grandpa’s backyard, a tree house. When anxiety kicks in, tell him to close his eyes, imagine that spot, while breathing slowly and letting the worry fly slowly away.
These are tough times for everyone—but especially for our kids. World events are unpredictable. Tragedies seem to be all the news. As much as we’d like to protect our children, unfortunately there are some things we can’t control. What we can do is help our children learn strategies to cope and those tools will build our children’s resilience to handle whatever comes their way.
Anxious kids are two to four times more likely to develop depression, and as teens are much more likely to become involved with substance abuse.
Anxiety symptoms are showing up in kids as young as three years. If your child shows signs of anxiety for more than a few weeks or if you’re concerned, don’t wait. Seek professional help. Please. Now take three slow deep breaths. What’s your first step to help your family?
Prayers and thoughts for a more peaceful world.
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.
You can also refer to my blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.
My new book, UNSELFIE: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World is in print June 2016. (Yahoo!) I’ve spent the last five years researching and writing this book as well as literally flying around the world to find the best ways we can activate our children’s hearts. My goal is to create a conversation that makes us rethink or view of success as exclusively grades, rank and score and includes traits of humanity! It’s filled with common-sense solutions based on the latest science to help us raise compassionate, caring, courageous kids. It’s time to include “empathy” in our parenting and teaching!