Nfld. & Labrador

A psychologist's tips for helping kids cope with troubling world events

Activities, activism and a strong support system help younger generations process heavy topics, says psychologist Dr. Janine Hubbard.

Dr. Janine Hubbard says keep communication open, and watch for warning signs

St. John's child psychologist Dr. Janine Hubbard is the president of the Association of Psychology Newfoundland Labrador. (Submitted by Janine Hubbard)

From hate crimes to the horrors of the residential school system, heavy topics can be hard to reckon with for anyone. But as one St. John's psychologist explains, that task can be particularly troubling for younger generations.

Psychologist Dr. Janine Hubbard, president of the Association of Psychology Newfoundland Labrador, says parents can help children and teenagers navigate difficult topics — starting by asking them about what they might have heard.

"The best place to start is to simply say, 'You know what? There's been a lot going on in the news lately. What do you know? What have you heard?'" Hubbard told The St. John's Morning Show. "That gives you a starting point for where you're able to move next in your discussion with them."

Hubbard says it's important for adults to be forthcoming with kids about how they're feeling.

"They're aware that the adults around them are reacting and are feeling strong emotions," Hubbard said. "Talk to them about how you're reacting emotionally, because that helps to normalize the whole range of emotions that they're probably feeling."

Donna Ronan, a clinical social worker for Key Assets Newfoundland & Labrador, said children can deal with difficult things "as long as the people around them show them love."

When it comes to handling heavy topics, Ronan echoed Hubbard's advice: "Children generally do as well as the adults around them," she said. 

"It's extra-important to answer questions at their level, and not give them more information than they're asking for."

Children generally do as well as the adults around them.- Donna Ronan

An age-appropriate approach

Hubbard says an age-appropriate approach is critical, and highlights the importance of activities in helping younger children process difficult stories and emotions.

She cites as examples the many shoe displays seen across the country commemorating the 215 Indigenous children whose remains were discovered buried on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

For younger kids, Hubbard says, sparing the details of horrific stories such as these is OK. But it's trickier for older kids.

Hubbard says participating in commemorative activities like this shoe memorial can help children process events they don't fully understand. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"Once you start to hit about school-age kids, they've heard stuff," Hubbard said. 

Because children in this age range tend to react to heavy topics with helplessness, Hubbard suggests helping them find information, sign petitions, and write letters to politicians.

"Use all those emotions, especially the anger, to motivate towards action," she said. "That's how people are going to be able to move through it."

Watch for changes in behaviour

Hubbard says parents and caregivers concerned about their kids should look for key signs such as regressions (such as not wanting to sleep alone) as well as changes in appetite, sleep and mood.

"If you're suddenly seeing kids becoming much more withdrawn, if you see those kinds of shifts in behaviour, that's where you want to start raising some red flags and kind of seeing what's going on," she said.

Changes in behaviour can be a sign that kids need more help processing information, Hubbard said. It can also be a sign that a different course of action is required.

"We've had a lot of stress for an awful lot of individuals over the last year and a half. It might be that this is what has kind of pushed them over the edge, in terms of anxiety levels, and it's time to seek out some professional assistance," Hubbard said. 

Exercise and fresh air are key for helping kids maintain mental health, says Hubbard. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

To maintain proper mental health in anxiety-provoking times, Ronan recommends kids monitor their media intake.

"Be extremely careful about TV, radio," she said. "The input they are exposed to can do a lot to lessen the effects."

Strengthening social connections, focusing on the broader picture and staying hopeful, she said, are all effective tools in maintaining mental health.

For anyone struggling, regardless of age, Hubbard has similar advice: limit your media intake, get outside and have some fun.

"None of us are at our full speed at the moment," she said. "We need to give ourselves a bit of a break."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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