When I was young, I distinctly remember being afraid of a nuclear attack from Russia. I also remember being afraid of the killer bees that were on their way from Africa. What if we get bombed? What will happen to my family and me? What if killer bees attack me? Will I die? These are not comforting thoughts when you are a child. They are scary. We didn't get bombed and we weren't attacked by killer bees.
Fast-forward to 2014.
Last night at the dinner table with my wife and three children, my high-schooler said, "Did you hear about the person who got it in Texas?" My elementary schooler said, "Got what?", and my middle schooler, nicknamed Mr. Science, replied, "Ebola." "What's Ebola?" my youngest asked. As my wife (a nurse who is good with explanations) started to respond when Mr. Science said something to the effect of -- "a disease that kills you by blood pouring out of your skin," (Oh great, that is helpful), my youngest child's face paled, her eyes widened, and she blurted, "Can we get it?"
Fortunately, my wife and I are veterans at helping to manage our children's worry. We have an unspoken game plan based on years of experience with them. We don't even have to look at each other anymore as we quickly move into information management and damage control. We know that each of our kids is at different developmental stages, and each gets worried about different things in different ways.
Our oldest is very good -- now -- at putting big, scary things out of her mind and focusing on what's in front of her: a Japanese test, homecoming and cross-country. Our middle guy isn't scared because he has already deduced the facts about how the disease is spread, how it could get to the U.S. and what is done about it. Further, he is focused on freaking out his little sister far more than getting Ebola. Our 10-year-old, however, is starting to get scared.
At the dinner table, my wife and I were calm. She explained that Ebola is a virus that is in Africa. "Not anymore," my son said (again, very helpful). Deep breath. OK, first, we are also aware that this is how our son is managing his worry about it -- to be the expert and mess with his sister. While I was getting frustrated with him about his comments, we proactively counteracted his statements: "A man in a Texas has it. He came from Africa after helping a woman who was very sick. He allegedly lied about being exposed and was let in our country." My wife spoke very calmly and I remained calm. Our oldest, who is very intuitive, was looking at us to get a read about how serious this is. We were doing a good job -- she is starting to think about homecoming again. Our youngest asked a few more questions about how you get it. My wife calmly responded through contact with others fluids -- not just through the air. I calmly said the likelihood of us or anyone we know getting it is so small it isn't even worth thinking about. She was satisfied (for now) and went back to her book. My son saw the door had closed on scaring her and we got back to our evening.
With the news of Ebola dominating the news, similar scenarios are taking place at dinner tables, during bedtime rituals, at soccer games and around the lunch table in school.
Being afraid of a nuclear attack or killer bees was very upsetting to me. These events were out of my control and there was nothing I could do about it. All my time worrying about them was for naught -- fortunately. But my worry and fear was very real.
Today, our current situation with Ebola is the same for children and teens. It is very scary to think about, but there is nothing we can do about it. Our job as parents is to help our children deal with worrisome information by understanding how they think and process information at this formative time in their lives, and by giving them information they need to manage their thoughts and worries while remaining engaged in life and sticking to regular routine living.
Based on my work with families and my own personal experiences, I suggest:
• Think about how your children think about "worry" events based on their age and maturity
• Filter information based on their age and maturity level
• Minimize watching the news, listening to the radio, screen time and monitoring internet news and images
• Respond to their questions calmly and with the minimal amount of information necessary
• Give facts that are helpful and reduce fear such as the likelihood of the event occurring and how it is transmitted
• Offer reassurance as needed
Whether it is nuclear attack, killer bees, SARS, economic collapse, war or Ebola, there will always be something that can cause worry in young people. The goal is to give our children (they way our parents did) the tools to deal with the worry right now and shut down the fear. The unexpected curve balls of life will keep coming but we can win the fear game.