My seven-year-old daughter is very anxious about the possibility of war, soldiers and bombs. She’s always been a bit worried about soldiers but after a nightmare last week and also a month of general anxiety about things (eg homelessness and the wider world in general), it seems to obsess her. She doesn’t see newspapers or the news, so it is very much in her head, but that makes it no less real to her.
We have tried to respect her fears while not feeding them, and have patiently (and sometimes less so as she asked about 100 times yesterday) answered the question “Will there be a war soon?” with a clear no. Now I am at a loss as to how to help her to get it out of her head. She has a “good things box” which she adds to every day and reads when she wants, for example. This fear/obsession has me stumped, so advice would be most welcome.
Given that we strive to keep our children happy and free from harm, when they start to express fear it can be unsettling and upsetting. But what your daughter is experiencing is normal. She may feel it more acutely than another child because she may be of a more sensitive nature (entirely appropriate if that’s her personality type) or she may be able to express it better than other children. Also, you say it’s in her head, but this fear will have come from somewhere and you may be surprised by the source. It may have been the tiniest piece of information, or a fairytale or a friend at school (not all news comes from the press).
Or they may have been raising money at school for a cause which has triggered this fear. Your daughter is also probably a good reader at this age and she may have read something on a newsstand. (I rarely hide newspapers from my children by the way, although I understand that it can be tempting and it obviously has to be your decision. But, if my children ask for clarification, I prefer to give it rather than have them get alarmist and inaccurate theories in the playground.)
I consulted Alison Roy, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), about your letter. She asked if there had been any changes at home or school that could have triggered this behaviour but also thought it would be “useful to check if they have been covering topics such as poverty and war – even indirectly at school, church, youth clubs etc”.
Roy wanted to reassure you: “Mostly this type of fixation with war, shock and imminent disaster is normal for children this age. They can suddenly become aware of the world as a big and different place from home, they are afraid but fascinated by big world events and are trying to establish whether they will invade their own world.” Roy has seen children who have suddenly become worried about fire, long after a school trip to the fire station.
When my eldest was about the same age as your daughter, she became obsessed with fire breaking out at home. At first, like you, I tried to quell her fears. But it didn’t work and I realised that I don’t like people simply trying to pacify me when I’m worried. I like to work through things. So we talked about house fires, the causes, the fact that we have a fire alarm and test it and – crucially – what would happen if a fire did break out – exit points, what to do, etc. This seemed to empower her. There were still questions for a while – “Could you carry me and my sister and the cuddly toys?” – but it did the trick.
So is saying “no” hitting the spot for your curious little girl? Perhaps instead of avoiding the subject, you need to explore it with her and talk about how, although we have soldiers and they have gone to war, the last time there were enemy soldiers in Britain was more than 1,000 years ago (and, briefly, in the 18th century)?
Roy also suggested addressing “your child’s expressed need to familiarise herself with possible change, the beginnings of being a bit more separate and a dawning awareness of not always being sheltered and protected, as she grows older. She is expressing a need for understanding about ‘bigger world’ information. [Children] want to know more but are fearful because they feel confused and ignorant about why and how events such as war, fire, burglaries etc, happen.”
Roy suggested “age-appropriate stories about war” and getting “as much information about soldiers and why battles happen, as possible; respond to the curious and interested part of her, rather than only the anxious part.”
Your daughter needs to realise that you can handle her fears and questions without getting anxious yourself. By sensitively exploring a subject she finds frightening with her, you will demystify it, not make it more terrifying. She’ll know where to come if she needs more information, too.
This article was first published in The Guardian Family on 27 June 2014.