CAPITAL REGION – Stacey Kozak sat down to dinner recently and her 16-year-old son asked her about something he saw on social media that day. She had been at work all day and didn’t even know about it.
It reminded her that he is growing up in a much different world. When she was his age, she didn’t have access to information as it happened. Whether they are looking for the content or not, it can just appear in front of them as they scroll.
Kozak, a therapist at the Family Counseling Center of Fulton County’s Behavioral Health Clinic, recognizes this when it comes to children being exposed to such horrors as the images and videos of war coming from Ukraine the past several months. While adults may not be aware of the content a child has seen when they bring it up, Kozak says it is important to stay on top of what’s going on as best as possible. But, even more so, to create an environment for children to talk about what they see and feel that their thoughts and feelings about what is going on are valued.
Jennifer Jennings, director of marketing and fund development for the Family Counseling Center, was talking to another therapist earlier this month about that woman’s son’s anxiety, and how he’s “constantly connected” to the internet. It brought them around to Ukraine and the videos he was watching on YouTube.
Jennings said that conversation inspired the creation of some tips for anyone to speak to children about the topic. The thought being, “if it’s happening in one household, it’s happening in many households,” she said.
“We recognize that we have a high caseload, all of our therapists have a high caseload, and so getting immediate access to our therapists might not be possible,” Jennings said. “And so with these sorts of situations, we want to be able to get information out into the community so that we can help as much as possible with families and addressing issues that might be coming up.”
ACKNOWLEDGE AND MONITOR
The three suggestions the press release the center put out after speaking with several members of its Behavioral Health Clinic included acknowledging and monitoring children’s media consumption, as well as how anxiety caused by what they see can present itself. In the release, interim clinic director Michelle Clark also encouraged adults to self monitor.
The release suggested looking out for changes in children’s appetite and sleeping patterns, along with increased irritability and decreased interest in favorite activities, such as watching TV or going online
The triggers, or causes, for one’s anxiety may also not all be readily apparent. At the Saratoga Center for the Family, which provides abuse prevention programs, mental health therapy, victims’ advocacy, intake coordinator Liz Zack has been going back through records to find people on their waitlist eligible for coverage of costs because they were affected by the coronavirus pandemic. After coming across just five or six with any mention of COVID, she recognized that many may not have necessarily made the correlation.
“I quickly realize it’s just sort of everyone in every way has been offended by it,” she said. So with that, I think, with what’s been going on in Ukraine, it’s kind of similar, people might not specifically mention that as a cause, or a trigger, but the sense of like, being triggered, or having the anxiety, that they might not even realize it because of their exposure to that we get this everywhere.”
Stacey Kozak, a therapist at the Family Counseling Center’s Behavioral Health Clinic, said in a recent Zoom interview with the Leader-Herald that “the gift of calm” is the best one to give children. She pointed out that children have access to information quicker than ever before, so much so that they may know something before the adults in their lives have a chance to find out about it. She said it is important to stay on top of what those things might be, and also share with children that they have stressful days, too.
Kozak also spoke of the importance of creating space in time for children to talk about what they’re seeing and feeling. She stressed keeping it age and developmentally appropriate and using language that is best for the child to understand.
Johnstown High School, one of eight schools with Family Counseling Center personnel in Fulton and Montgomery County, has taken this approach, specifically in its English language arts and social studies courses, according to principal Scott Hale. Superintendent William Crankshaw sent out an article to his “district team” with tips to talk to students about the Ukraine conflict early on from EducationWeek, a long-time news source in education.
“You’re talking about human rights violations, you’re talking about an imbalance of power or lack of power, invasions, conflict, so it can be relevant to anything that they’re learning in global history, U.S. history, government, really,” Hale said, “and then just really making an age appropriate and allowing them to lead that discussion.”
Kelly Chabot, a 35-year veteran in the counseling profession working with children, based in Saratoga Springs, commends Johnstown for encouraging the dialogue in the classroom. He said that teens talking and listening to each other is important to learn, but also therapeutic in itself because they may very well leave the room knowing their opinion was valued despite another disagreeing with them.
Hale gives all the credit to his educators who allow students to be critical thinkers.
“It’s trusting them and doing what they do as professionals, to really allow those conversations to get to a level of appropriateness. And when it does get off track to try to bring it back on the track and bring it on the rails,” he said. “And it’s not always talking about Russia, Ukraine, it’s everything. There are a lot of [topics], especially in humanities classes, where it’s not always so black and white.”
WHAT CAN BE CONTROLLED
Both Kozak and Chabot recommended making it clear in discussions that the war is happening a great distance away, not close to home, particularly with younger children. They said seeing the images online or on TV can make the events seem like they are happening in our own backyard. Kozak said it’s good to pair the conversation with a visual like a map or globe, so children can see just how far away Ukraine is from where they live.
That dialogue is one step in helping them understand the idea of what is in control and what is not in the world around them. Another visual exercise Kozak recommends is drawing two circles, one large with a smaller one within it. Adults should have children right things outside of their control in the larger circle and things within their control in the smaller one, then review. Make the things age appropriate, she said, as younger children might say they can control the socks they wear or their snack before bed, while older ones might go deeper.
One thing Kozak keyed on that can be done to help children is affirming that they’re relating to the children in the war zone and feeling compassion, then encouraging ways to help them locally, as they cannot change the circumstances they are seeing on the frontlines.
Hale said Johnstown High collected items and brought them to St. John’s Episcopal Church in the city to then be sent to Ukraine. But, he also mentioned that the school has student organizations like the Key Club and National Honor Society that collect food for a food bank on a weekly basis and are currently collecting shoes for a donation drive – that collection has filled five or six classrooms with shoeboxes.
“I think they’ve always felt that sense of agency or through help support others who struggle,” Hale said.
After acknowledging and monitoring and focusing on what can be controlled, the Family Counseling Center’s final tip was to create a list of coping strategies. They listed these examples:
- Getting out in nature to take a walk or to play
- Spending time with a pet
- Taking deep breaths and concentrating on how it feels to fill your lungs with air and then let it out
- Listen to music
- Sit in a quiet place and list things you see
Kozak stressed once again to make them developmentally appropriate, but also that they should be transferable to any situation. Both her and Chabot encourage taking regular time away from electronics. Chabot said this can be particularly important for younger children who may still need guidance as to how much time they spend on devices. He also said that time, which he suggested be as routine as possible, can allow teenagers a space to share. He said, in a family with multiple children, try to have one-to-one time with each, in order to keep it age appropriate.
“Sometimes kids are like, particularly teenagers, they’re like clam shells, you know, they’re kind of closed off,” he said. “But every now and then they open up, and as a parent, you want to be available.”
Kozak is a big proponent of slowing down and the concept of grounding. Her preferred method simply uses the five senses, which she said is the easiest way to teach a child.
She said it’s because it can be done anytime and anywhere, discreetly, inside a child’s mind. It’s teaching them an independent coping skill.
“You look at your five fingers, and you say to yourself as you’re breathing in and out, you’re really focusing on five things that you can see, four things that you can hear, three things that you can feel, two things that you can smell, one thing that you can taste, and you can repeat the exercise over and over again, you know, as much as you need until you feel really calm.”
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