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  • Talya Ressel

Day Zero -5 ways to manage your child's (understandable) anxiety about a crisis

The topic dominates the news, the dinner table and pretty much most parts of daily life in Cape Town. We may have tried to ignore the signs but reality is here and we have had to drastically change our behaviour. While we celebrate the recent delay of “Day Zero” we continue to confront the crisis daily. In the face of this crisis our children have become better educated about the value of water, which is so positive, but at the same time, it has resulted in them being exposed to a very scary experience.

Typically I talk about how anxiety is an emotion and does not need a logical explanation to affect young people – but what about when there is a very real and logical reason?! What about when you see the adults around you panicking, fighting to buy that last bottle of water, when there is talk all over the media about this dreaded ‘Day Zero’ that is our fault and when you overhear the adults discussing all the terrible things to come when ‘it’ hits!

It is understandable to see an increase in anxiety among children as a response to a crisis. We cannot make the situation better, nor pretend it’s not happening but what we can do, as the adults, is be aware of the experience from the child’s point of view, monitor if their anxiety is becoming overwhelming and take steps to help them cope through it.

Some of the typical signs of increasing anxiety in the child include:

  • Any noticeable changes in usual behaviours: Sleeping patterns, eating habits, socialising, mood

  • Constant worry and/or inability to control fear or worry

  • Avoiding situations or places because of fears

  • Complaints of frequent stomach aches/headaches/muscle tension

  • Experiencing sudden and frequent panic attacks

  • Feeling tense, fidgety, restless

  • Quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts

Even if your child is not displaying some of the symptoms listed above, I encourage parents and caregivers to take the following 5 steps to assist the child in making sense of the crisis:

  1. Be aware of what they have been exposed to – ask them questions such as, what have they heard about the water crisis, why do they think it’s happening, what’s going to happen to all of us?

  1. Once you have a gotten a sense of how they are perceiving the situation, explore with them which might be true, incorrect or exaggerated. Often there is a misunderstood ‘snippet’ or magical ‘ fact’ that is causing additional distress.

  1. Acknowledge the many different emotions this crisis can make them, and you, feel – how we can feel a mix of fear, disbelief, denial, guilt, panic, worry, anger etc. Let them know they can talk about any of those feelings.

  1. Discuss with your child all the steps that are being taken locally and personally to address the situation and what the family’s ‘game plan’ is. Often in a crisis, we can feel feeling powerless, overwhelmed and lost but exploring this ideas with the child we encourage a sense of feeling empowered, having a plan and taking action.

  1. Finally, as the adults in the situation, we have a responsibility to help filter and protect what the child is exposed to. Have a break from the topic- turn off media from time to time and be aware if other adults are discussing the topic in too much detail around the child. And most importantly manage your own anxiety and distress – children are closely watching the adults and taking cues from their moods.

This crisis brings about a lot of uncertainty, and with uncertainty, there is always anxiety. We can’t protect our children completely but we can help manage those big emotions. And while we all hope for rain and a resolution, what we do in the meantime can assist children in developing their resilience.

Please note if concerns continue to increase, even after addressing the topic with your child, please contact a professional for further support.

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