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Graphic images and stories of violence from wars in the Middle East, Ukraine, and other conflicts are dominating the airwaves and social media—and kids in communities across the U.S. are watching and listening.
On Friday, October 27, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center. She discussed topics including: the impact of images and stories related to war and violence on children’s mental and emotional health; advice for parents (and other adults) on talking to children across the age span, and/or answering their questions, about war and violence, including issues of hate; how to help children cope when they are exposed to upsetting news and information; how to help parents and caregivers cope with recent events so they can better support and help their children; and recognizing signs and symptoms that children/teens may be struggling with recent events.
ROBIN GURWITCH: My name is Dr. Robin Gurwitch. I am a professor and a psychologist at Duke University Medical Center. So, since the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City at the Murrah Federal Building in 1995, I’ve been involved in service, research, material development, and training related to helping children, families, and communities in their healing and recovery from disasters, mass violence, and terrorist events.
How do images and stories about war and violence affect children’s mental and emotional health?
ROBIN GURWITCH: The very short answer is it’s not good. These events take a toll on our youth. So we know from much, much work in this area that we see an increase in anxiety, in worries, in fears, in depression, sometimes increase in anger. We see an increased sense of hopelessness, and then, at the extreme, if I don’t feel hopeful about the future, then an increase in risk for suicide. So, the impact of these events on our children’s mental health is not good.
How should parents approach conversations with children about hate and hate crimes, war, and violence?
ROBIN GURWITCH: When we talk about hate and hate crimes, war, and violence, it is often hard for us as adults to wrap our heads around that and to come up with how we’re feeling and what we’re thinking about these events. So, I think the first thing we have to do before we even begin to talk to our children is put in place how we’re doing, how are we feeling. What are our thoughts? What are the values and beliefs that we hold in the face of these types of events? Talk to friends, other trusted relatives, to make sure that you have a handle on your emotions. Once that’s done, then truly, truly talk to your children. Start the conversation. There’s been a terrorist attack in Israel and now there’s a war there. There was a shooting in Maine. There was a hurricane in Mexico. So, whatever it is that you’re talking to them about making sure that you are coping OK and then talk to them. It’s really important that you start that conversation.
What specific advice do you have for talking to young children?
ROBIN GURWITCH: With really young children, under preschool age and younger, they probably don’t know and won’t understand what’s going on. Yet. They can sense your distress. So, making sure you keep their routines as consistent as possible will be helpful. When we start talking about school-aged children—assume they know. They’ve heard about it on the school bus. They’ve heard about it from friends. They’ve seen it on TV when they’ve walked through your living room. So, with school-aged children, I think you start the conversation saying there’s been, and then fill in the event you’re going to talk about. There’s been a terrorist attack in Israel and now there’s a war, and that’s really hard, but I want to talk to you about it. Tell me what you’ve heard about it. And allow them to have that ability to tell you what they’ve heard. And listen for and correct gently misinformation, rumors, misinterpretations. And then follow that up with how is that making you feel. Those are hard things to think about. And as they share their feelings with you, accept those rather than try to talk them out of it. It doesn’t work for adults, and it won’t work for children.
What specific advice do you have for talking to tweens and teens?
ROBIN GURWITCH: Sometimes when we talk or try to talk to our tweens and teens, they give us the shoulder shrug or they say I’m fine nothing. Or you know, why do I need to tell you what I think? So, sometimes we may approach it a little different. We may be able to say tell me what you know about the war that’s happening in Israel and Gaza. But sometimes you may phrase it a little differently and say you know the war has been going on for a few weeks in Israel and Gaza. Tell me what your friends are saying about that. What are y’all talking about? What are you seeing on social media about it? So, it gives you a little bit of distance, or it gives them a little bit of distance from you. I am willing to share about my friends. I’m willing to share about social media. And it gives you some insight on what they understand, what they believe, and again, gives you an opportunity to check in about any misperceptions or misinformation that they may have.
What specific advice do you have for talking to college students?
ROBIN GURWITCH: You finally have your empty nest with at least one child. And yet, when they are away, for them, they’re excited to be gone, but there’s still a tether that binds the two of you as they’re continuing to grow into their own person. So, it is important to reach out and check in. How are things going for them? Tell me what’s happening on campus or on the grounds related to the war in Israel and Gaza. Tell me what’s happening on campus? What are professors saying? What are your classmates saying about what’s happening. Checking in to make sure that they feel safe, that they feel supported. And to let them know that you are there if they have any concerns, or any worries about anything, to give you a call and you’ll talk it through with them and make sure that together you can come up with a plan.
How can parents monitor their children’s media diet and social media use while respecting their privacy?
ROBIN GURWITCH: When we’re talking about school-aged children, parents and caregivers truly need to know what their social media is all about. They need to look at it. They need to make sure that it’s appropriate, no matter what. As children get older, they do expect a little bit more privacy. But I think it’s important for parents to say, you know, I’ve heard from other parents—you can throw other parents under the bus—I’ve heard from other parents that there’s a lot of things on social media about the war in Israel, or whatever the topic is. What is your social media saying about this? Ask them to share with you some of the things that they’re seeing. And let them know that oftentimes there are things on social media that just aren’t true. And to come to you if they have any questions about what they’re seeing or hearing, and you’ll tell them what you know to be true. Also, talk to them about that sometimes there are images that no one should see. If they see that, and they’re concerned about that, please again, come to you so you can talk it through with them. Acknowledging that while their friends are seeing it and they may be drawn to it, that this can interfere with their sleep, this can interfere with their focus, because those images are hard to get out of our minds.
What can parents and caregivers do for themselves to ensure they can help and support their children?
ROBIN GURWITCH: It is absolutely essential that we practice good self care, if for no other reason than our children and teenagers are looking to us as role models. And if they don’t see us take care of ourselves, then when we say you need to take a break or you need to do something fun, then why? You’re not doing that, so why should I? So it is important that parents think about their own self care. If there was any silver lining at all to COVID, it was that we were able to reinforce coping strategies that worked for us and develop new coping strategies. So if during COVID, when you were distressed, you took a walk or you played with your animals or you baked or you gardened or you turned on ESPN and watched sports, whatever it was that helped you reduce some of your stress, engage in some of those activities each day. Maybe different ones each day, but doing something for you to increase your coping abilities not only models good self care for your children, but it also makes sure that you’re in a better position to help them tap into their coping strategies.
What are some signs and symptoms that children or teens may be struggling with recent events?
ROBIN GURWITCH: When we think about signs and reactions that children may have that can tell us, hey, I’m really struggling, I’m really distressed. Some of the kinds of things we may see are sleep problems. Either problems falling asleep or staying asleep, so they may be more tired. Because of that and because of other reactions to stress, children may be more irritable. Younger children may have more meltdowns and temper tantrums, and even our tweens and teens where we expect some of it, it’ll be above and beyond. We may see more conflict between you and your children, but also between your children and their peers. We may see a lack of enjoyment with the things that they used to really look forward to or want to do. Sometimes we see problems with attention and focus and concentration. That can lead to difficulties with schoolwork. It’s not that they’re not studying hard. It’s not that they’re not trying their best. But being able to process and retain new information becomes really hard. So a little bit of extra patience, maybe a little bit more help, even though in the past, they didn’t need a whole lot. And a little bit more attention and love really will go a long way these days.
After a conversation about a difficult topic, what should parents do next?
ROBIN GURWITCH: We’ve talked a lot about talking to your children about difficult topics but recognize it’s not a one and done. It’s a one and then I’m going to circle back and check back maybe in a few days, maybe in a week depending on what’s changing in the news cycle. But continue to check back in so that your children know that you’re a resource they can count on.
[Posted October 27, 2023 | Download video]
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