Did you happen to see any of the tsunami footage that residents shot following the earthquake in Japan? Some of the images were simply staggering. One clip I remember most vividly showed the massive wave as it swiftly inundated one coastal community. As a lone cameraman stood on a sloping hill, he captured the surreal moment of the sea water rushing in, gradually sweeping cars and vans down city streets like so many toys bobbing in a bathtub. Soon, surging water was shattering the windows and doors of buildings, immersing everything in its path as sirens wailed and a doleful voice ordered residents to higher ground. The cameraman panned briefly to a small knot of people gathered on a knoll above the town where they watched in stunned disbelief as the stores and houses of their hometown lifted from the foundations and slowly crashed into the brackish swirl.
Remarkably, all of this destruction took place in less than five minutes.
During that infinitesimal moment of time, life as the Japanese knew it was changed forever, those images of mass destruction seared into their collective minds. What I’ve wondered about since is how they are talking to their children about this unusual yet cataclysmic event. How do you quell their fears? How do you assure them the ocean won’t do it again, won’t gobble them up like some hungry sea serpent the next time they play at the shore.
Our story this month on worry and children is a timely one, I think, because as writer Stephanie Painter points out, the world gives us much to worry about. It’s not unusual for children (as well as adults) to worry about natural disasters. While a tsunami of this magnitude is rare, such events are frightening because they are things over which we have no control and the predictability of our world is suddenly shattered.
In the Mid-South, tornadoes are a real concern. When my son he was little, he would often become anxious when the threat of tornadoes would arise. Once the sirens would start, he’d turn on the news and give me regular updates on the storm’s progress. Sometimes I would watch with him, other times I would turn it off and we’d play a game together instead, to take his mind off his worry.
When I told him we’d be moving to our new home in Midtown, the first question he asked me was whether the house had a basement. When I answered yes, he seemed relieved. “Now we’ll have a place to go when the sirens go off,” he told me.
My son has often expressed his worries over the years, and it serves as a reminder to me of how a child’s perception of the world can be quite different from ours — for they have so little power or control over events that take place in their lives. As adults, we are constantly making choices that directly impact our kids, yet we don’t always consider them in our decision-making. We naturally assume children will weather life’s ups and downs. They’re resilient, we say, they’ll bounce back.
But who among us doesn’t want to be heard when we’re frightened? As parents, we sometimes pooh-pooh our children’s worries, telling them not to be afraid of the neighbor’s dog or the mean kid in class. We get frustrated when repeated efforts to prove there really are NO monsters under the bed are met with pleas of “Please, just turn the light back on.”
What our kids really want is the acknowledgement that their feelings matter to us. That we will be there to help them through the worry they face. Better yet, that we can empower them to face those worries themselves. For that is what builds emotional resilience and makes our kids stronger.
Sometimes, when my son was tucked into bed, I would ask him what was on his heart. And if he told me he was worried, I would take out my worry box and rest it in the palm of my hand. With each worry he voiced, I would gently place his words into our imaginary box and tell him. “Here, let me take care of this for you. Now you don’t have to worry about that problem for awhile.”
Those words seemed to bring a bit of calmness to the night. My son still gets anxious, though now he masks it with the tough guy veneer that teens adorn. Yet I can tell when he’s fretting over something. Sometimes he’ll tell me, and I’ll remind him of the worry box. And he just smiles.