As Americans – especially federal employees – try to understand the impacts of a government shutdown, imagine the stress young children must be feeling watching their families try to cope. Virginia Tech psychologist and director of the Child Study Center, Thomas Ollendick says it is critical for adults to talk about these issues with their children and to help them understand what is going on.

“The media is all around us and we cannot insulate children from it,” Ollendick said. “Even very young children are wondering what is going on these days. And, even though we ourselves do not know for sure, these are ‘teachable’ moments for us to help our children.”

One of the major issues for children is dealing with and accepting things they do not understand.  Their ability to make sense out of the unknown is limited by their cognitive ability.  They’ll rely on others – parents, siblings, teachers and others – to help them figure it out. 

“This gets complicated because most children, let alone their parents, teachers, and others including mental health professional like me, do not fully understand what a government shutdown means either.  Young children, like us, will do the best they can to ‘connect the dots’ when dealing with new issues such as this.”

Quoting Ollendick

  • “The number one thing we can do to help out – try to control our own stress levels and not transmit worry or anxiety to the children. We want to transmit understanding and empathy not anger and stress.”
  • “It is easy to recommend this, but it is difficult to enact. Still we need to handle our own negative reactions and stress levels so we can help children understand the situation better and cope with it, and not make them more upset or frustrated by our own reactions.”
  • “The longer this goes on the more likely the effects will worsen. Children try to come up with solutions to problems in as brief a period of time as they can. We need to double down our efforts over time.” 

Thomas Ollendick is a University Distinguished Professor in the department of psychology, in the Virginia Tech College of Science.  He is also Director of the Virginia Tech Child Study Center in Blacksburg.

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