As the government shutdown stretches into its second month with no resolution in sight, how do we speak to our children about what’s happening?
Families of government employees have gone over a month without a paycheck, making it difficult for some of them to afford housing, health care and food. Funding for government programs that benefit children, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), is threatened. And reports are circulating that federally subsidized school lunch programs will experience cuts, such as in North Carolina and Kansas.
Dr. Thomas Ollendick, a professor of psychology at Virginia tech who specializes in stress and anxiety in children, told ABC News that it can be difficult for families to discuss the financial and food insecurity associated with the government shutdown. He said it’s best to anticipate questions from them and to make it a point to expose them to age-appropriate news.
“Around age 8 is when children start discussing the world. For some children, they may not have the cognitive ability to understand some issues and redirecting may be the most appropriate strategy,” Ollendick said. “Dinnertime can provide an excellent opportunity for these discussions and allow you to provide context and answer questions.”
Ollendick acknowledged that the government shutdown has many people stressed out, but warned parents not to let that stress spill over onto their children. To do this, he said it’s best to try to control our own stress levels when we’re around them, and “not transmit worry or anxiety to the children.”
“We want to transmit understanding and empathy, not anger and stress,” he said.
This becomes all the more important when a child becomes stressed, as adding more stress and anxiety will only make things worse.
“One of the most difficult things to address with children is uncertainty. They will want to know, ‘When will things get back to normal?’ and you won’t be able to provide a concrete answer,” Ollendick said.
This is when it’s best to show them empathy and use affirming statements that show you’re listening to them, such as, “I hear you.”
To help them calm down, deep breathing can be helpful, Ollendick said. It can also be helpful to change the subject and talk about plans you have with your child, returning to the subject of the shutdown only once they’ve had a chance to calm down.
Dr. Erica Orsini is a resident physician of internal medicine and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.
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