How to help your children feel safe
Tricky stuff

How to help your children feel safe

With the news full of seemingly endless tragic stories it can be hard to protect your child from world events. We look at ways of helping children to feel safe despite their knowledge of tragic incidents.

Aileen O’Meara has two young daughters but despite her best efforts to keep them away from distressing news features, the Galway girls knew all about the Sandy Hook disaster, the abduction in Wales and even the supposed ‘end of the world’, which was predicted to occur in December.
“Niamh and Aoife are both under ten so I don’t encourage them to watch the news on TV and when there is something particularly worrying happening, I do my level best to keep them in the dark, but they always seem to find out,” says their 37-year-old mother.

“Niamh is nine and she seems to find out what is going on from her friends at school and then passes the news on to her little sister, who is only seven. Niamh was very worried that the world was going to end and got into our bed every night for weeks as she was convinced that her Dad was the only person who could protect her. After showing her the NASA website discounting all the prophecies, she was more relaxed – but it made me realise how global events really affect the kids.

A few months ago, both of them were really upset about the kidnapping of the little girl in Wales – particularly Niamh, who was really worried it would happen to her. Then when the shootings happened in America, she started having nightmares and I had a really tough time trying to get her into school.”

Giving an explanation

Together with Aoife’s teacher, Aileen talked to her youngest daughter about the two tragedies and explained why a shooting was less likely to happen in this country as guns are not so readily available and also reassured her that both she and her teachers, would ensure she got to and from school safely.
“After the abduction of April Jones, Aoife started worrying that she would be kidnapped when she wasn’t with me but we talked about the situation and it slowly began to fade from her memory,” says her mother. “But when the shootings in the US took place, she got totally freaked out and I knew I would have to get her teacher involved. So I made an appointment with him and together we outlined the reasons why something like that wasn’t likely to happen in Ireland.”

Should you be realistic?

“I know a few other mothers experienced something similar with their children and while some people think it is not a good idea to talk to youngsters about bad news, I believe they will hear about it from their friends, so if they are worried, parents have no choice but to sit their children down and explain the situation rationally to make them feel safe again.”

Wexford based, child and family psychologist, Peadar Maxwell, agrees that it is important to reassure children of their safety:
“Most primary and secondary-aged children are going to be aware of horrifying news stories even if they are not talking about it,” he says. “And if you know your child is following a story, talk to them about it; sit with them if they watch the news on TV. Ask them what they are thinking and feeling. Remind your child that the world is safe and that to keep it that way you mind your child; you know where he is and who he is with.

“I don’t recommend over-exposure of young children to the stream of bad news we get every day, be it shootings, abductions, the recession or wars around the world. Children come to understand our vast world in little bites of information with the guidance of their parents.

“But it would also be a mistake to think that pretending the world is Disneyland is helpful to your curious child. Talking about what we hear on the car radio on the way to the shops or breaking news that appears on your screens between shows can help inform your child, reassure him and give you a chance to share your opinions and values.”

Keep it short

Psychologist Dr David Carey believes that parents should keep their children away from tragic news stories and only impart information if and when it is required.

“It is generally not advisable to tell children about things such as child abduction unless they ask questions,” he says. “Then questions should be taken literally and answered in a way the child can understand. Talking to children at length about these matters can cause upset and distress.
“Some children are especially susceptible to becoming fearful and anxious and bringing these subjects up without any context has the potential to be harmful to them.
“But if it is necessary to communicate news of tragic events to children it should be done with their developmental level in mind and be concise and to the point. Always ask if the child has questions. Tell them they can come and talk about it any time with you. Be present and be available. It is often more important to listen to the child than to talk to them.”

Both psychologists believe that talking to children about tough topics is something that parents will have to do on several occasions throughout their lives. Many people may find this difficult, but there are a couple of tips that should make the process easier and more fruitful for both adult and child.

These include:

• Initiate discussion about the things you think are important
• Don’t have taboo topics
• Create an open environment
• Communicate your own values
• Listen to your child
• Try to be honest
• Be patient
• Use every-day opportunities to talk
• Check their understanding of what you’ve discussed.

More like this:

How to keep your children safe
Keeping kids safe from abuse
Help your children to be streetwise

Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.


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Q. I’m would like to start an exercise programme that will benefit my emotional health as much as my physical health, but I don’t know which type of class would be best. Should I consider choosing from yoga, pilates, tai chi, or could you recommend a class, please?

A It’s great that you have decided to get into exercise. The benefits to you are going to be great. You’ll sleep better, have more energy, better skin, reduced stressed, not to mention all the amazing physical benefits of your clothes fitting better, and looking healthy, trim and toned! My advice to you would be to try them all. Even if some don’t offer pay-as-you-go sessions, if you get in touch directly with the instructor, they will almost always let you try it out first to see if it’s for you. All of the above things that you mentioned are great for mental health, so it really will be a personal preference as to which you go for. On top of the classes you mention, all forms of exercise will give you great mental rewards so consider the not so obvious interval training sessions, bootcamp, and circuits too, as you will also feel on top of the world after a class like that.