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War In The Age Of Tik Tok, A Parental Guide To Your Child's Mental Health

Many children are struggling with what feels like a constant state of crisis. Parents are right to be concerned, but they should not try to shield kids. Instead, it's all about communication.

War In The Age Of Tik Tok, A Parental Guide To Your Child's Mental Health

A boy plays on a mobile phone in an apartment that was damaged by Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine

Elke Hartmann-Wolff

One afternoon in the Swabian Alps in Germany, Anna Jüttler is driving along with her sons Maris, 10, and Silvan, 8, in the back. They are chatting about school and what they’d like to eat tonight when the news comes on the car radio: Russian attacks continue on Ukraine. The German army is ill-equipped for battle.

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One week later, Jüttler thinks back to that car journey. She looked in the rear-view mirror and saw in her sons’ eyes that “nothing is the same”. Her younger son bombarded her with questions about why the German army didn’t have any “good rockets and planes”. His older brother joined in.

His friend had said there was going to be a Third World War. Was that true? Would there be a nuclear attack?

Many have been feeling like it's the end of the world since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Parents like Anna Jüttler not only have to deal with their own sense of uncertainty but also with their children’s fears and questions. How can they best support their children through the crisis? How can they answer difficult questions about the war in an age-appropriate way? And how can they tell if their children are feeling overwhelmed and need professional help?

State of permanent crisis

Jüttler is a nurse and has worked for many years in a specialist psychiatric department for children and young people. “I feel really sorry for children and young people today,” she says. "First they had to deal with two years of the pandemic, with being home-schooled and not being allowed to see their friends or grandparents. And now, just when it seemed there was light at the end of the tunnel, they have had to watch war rear its ugly head in Europe."

Nearly half of young people surveyed were fearful about the future

Youth sociologist Klaus Hurrelmann recently said that the generation of young people growing up now are experiencing a state of permanent crisis. Many studies have shown the negative effects of the pandemic on children and young people’s mental health. According to the wide-ranging study published in February, 80% of respondents between 7 and 17 years old felt “overwhelmed”.

Although mental health-related symptoms such as anxiety and depression were less common than the previous year, still almost 30% of respondents were suffering from them. Towards the end of last year, a study by the universities of Heidelberg and Frankfurt am Main found that nearly half of young people surveyed were fearful about the future.

The aftermath of a bombing over a maternity ward in Vilniansk

Dmytro Smolienko/Ukrinform/ZUMA

Learning to cope with fear

“It is understandable that many parents are worried about how their children are coping with the extra psychological burden of the war,” says child and young people’s psychologist Ralph Schliewenz. However, adults should not try to shield their children from all adversity and reality, according to Schliewenz.

“Children and young people cannot develop normally if their parents remove all obstacles from their path,” says Schliewenz. Ideally, mothers and fathers should help their children to learn how to overcome difficulties and deal with fears. That is the only way they can develop the important skills of self-sufficiency, the strength to deal with problems themselves – although of course with help and support along the way.

Children must also learn how to cope with fear. “Fear is part of our lives, it is a vital part of existence,” says Schliewenz. It warns us of potential dangers and can save our lives. However, when it becomes overwhelming, as in anxiety disorders, it can stop us from leading a happy life.

Three principles to help kids

So what should parents bear in mind when talking to their children? Schliewenz highlights three main principles. Firstly: there’s no need to answer questions that haven’t been asked. If a child doesn’t want to know anything about a difficult subject, there’s no need to talk to him about it. Secondly: you need to find an age-appropriate answer for every question.

For example, if a five-year-old is worried about war breaking out in their home country, you could say that it’s very unlikely, and if it were to happen, Germany has a lot of friends around the world who would help them. For a ten-year-old, you could say: the German army is very well funded and its soldiers are equipped with modern weapons. For a concerned teenager, you can explain: we belong to NATO and are therefore part of a strong alliance that has high-tech weapons at its disposal.

Children don’t need to know and see everything

Schliewenz’s third principle is: even if their child isn’t asking questions, but is acting differently, parents should still probe a little deeper.

Warning signs in young children could be weepiness, not wanting to play with friends, or problems sleeping, explains Schliewenz. Parents of teenagers should pay attention to talk of hopelessness, changes to their eating habits, or a tendency to withdraw. In those cases, Schliewenz recommends going to a counseling center or school counselor.

Clips showing injured people, destruction or violence can stay in the mind of young children.


Media responsibility

What role does the media play?

“Pictures are very powerful and sometimes very dangerous,” says Schliewenz. Clips showing injured people, destruction or violence stay in the mind. The younger the child, the more severe symptoms can be, such as trouble sleeping or severe anxiety. “Children don’t need to know and see everything,” says Schliewenz. If parents watch the news with their teenage children, they can see their emotional reactions straight away and immediately answer any questions they have.

However, when children have their own smart phones, parents lose all control over their media use. Marcell Heinrich, the founder of Hero Society, an institute dedicated to supporting young people’s personal development and helping them to reach their potential, has recently seen young people watching TikTok videos uploaded by soldiers on their smart phones. The videos show scenes of war.

If parents discover their children are doing this, they should explain that they are too young to deal with images of violence.

Heinrich has also seen behavior in young children that gives him cause for concern. Many primary school children seemed depressed and spoke about subjects like environmental destruction or diseases.

“Information can be helpful, but children can quickly begin to feel overwhelmed,” says Heinrich. Their parents meant well. But passing their own concerns on to their children has a negative impact on their well-being. “It is very important for children and young people to feel secure.”

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