Question: My 14-year-old son is really worried that world war three will break out. Since Russia invaded Ukraine he has been anxious. He is not sleeping well as a result and is tired and on edge during the day. I try to reassure him that things won’t go that far, but he argues back with me. He asks how could I possibly know that.
He follows the news and is well informed and he has always liked history (unfortunately, about the second World War, the Cold War, etc). I find I don’t know what to say to help him. To be honest, I have also been very disturbed by recent events. I find the images of war appalling and, like my son, I am worried too, so I imagine this is not helping either.
I grew up as a child with my own fears of nuclear war during the Cold War so it is heart breaking to see him now worried like me a generation later.
Answer: You and your son are not alone. The breakout of war has been traumatic and disturbing for the whole world. The fact that it is so near to us in Europe and with the prospect of a sustained conflict and possible escalation with nuclear weapons in the background, it is a terrifying set of events. Further, we are all witnessing the harrowing suffering of the war in real time on social media and in the constant 24-hour news cycle. Aside from the fear of what might happen next, helplessly witnessing the mass suffering of others can be deeply traumatising. Here are a couple of ideas as to how you can help yourself and your son cope emotionally.
Seek some support for yourself
It is good that you have noticed how your own feelings have been triggered and that you are aware of how your fears resonate with what you experienced as a child. Find a place where you can talk about and express your own feelings and worries. This could simply mean confiding in your partner or arranging to meet an empathic friend to discuss things. The more you are able to express, process and understand your own feelings, the more able you will be to help your son.
Encourage your son to express his feelings
While you might initially be shocked that your son feels this way (no parent likes their children to be troubled like this), it is definitely a good thing that he is talking to you. It would be worse if he felt he had to bottle up his feelings for fear of upsetting you, and then had to deal with them alone. Instead, encourage him to talk and make sure to listen carefully. Validate his feelings – “It is understandable that you are so worried, a lot of people are” – and encourage him to get things off his chest.
Be careful about reassurance
Be careful how you reassure your son. Teenagers usually like their views and thoughts to be taken seriously, especially well-informed teenagers like your son. Rather than simply reassuring, it can be more useful to help your son think out his own thoughts and arguments – “What do you think is best way for the world to respond?”. If you do reassure, offer it as your opinion – “I do hope they will find a way to de-escalate things . . . I think Europe might act together now to sort things out”.
Encourage your son to take constructive action
Rather than just worrying, encourage your son to think about what he can do to help. This could be simple actions like making a donation to the Red Cross or posting a Ukraine flag in social media as a sign of solidarity with the people, or even joining a campaign or protest. In times of great societal crises, it is the people who focus on helping others who cope the best emotionally.
Encourage your son to limit his worrying
As well as listening to your son, it is important to encourage him to set some limits on his worrying if possible. For example, try to agree that he will only read the news once or twice a day and stay away from constant social media viewing especially during the evening close to bedtime. If he resists doing this, you may have to persuade him to give it a go – “Do you think there is any benefit in worrying about it all the time? You are only exhausting yourself . . . We are not good to anyone if we just keep upsetting ourselves . . . Let’s agree to take a break from thinking/ talking about it in the evening?”
Help your son get back into a sleep routine
The single thing that will help most is to get your son back to sleeping well at night. Anxiety feeds sleeplessness and vice versa. Try to agree a relaxation plan with him. This might include:
1) no news/social media late at night
2) watching relaxing/funny TV instead
3) going for an evening walk with the dog
4) listening to relaxing music before sleep
…or whatever else might work for him.
If your son finds himself unable to fall asleep or awake “tossing and turning” during the night, the key is to get up and interrupt the sleepless pattern. Lying in bed trying to sleep for long periods of time makes you feel more and more frustrated, which in turn makes it less likely for you to fall asleep. Interrupting this process will break the cycle and allow you to reset and start again. Suggest he gets up for a few minutes and does something to distract himself like reading, doing 10 press-ups or listening to music or a meditation guide. If he is worried, it might help to get up to write these worries down in a notebook before returning to his bed to sleep.
Encourage him to be gentle and patient with himself as he returns to sleep.
John Sharry, Irish Times Parenting Q&A 21st March 2022