Meilan Carter-Gilkey was not expecting the question her 4-year-old son Mateo asked her last year.
“The challenge is knowing when to tell your child that the world looks at you differently, that it isn’t fair, and that your very life may be in danger because of what you look like,” she wrote.
Last week’s three national tragedies were seemingly incomprehensible. Police shot and killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a police officer killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Then, five police officers trying to keep the streets safe in Dallas were brutally gunned down by a sniper.
For children, the events invite questions that are unanswerable. It’s no wonder they can make sleeping difficult.
The experience is particularly acute for African-Americans and children of color when the news is about police brutality against black people.
“When you’re part of a stigmatized community, so much of your identity is tied up in that community,” Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, previously told HuffPost. “And when you see other people like you who are being victimized, it makes you feel that the world’s not a safe place for people like you.”
Seeing Yourself In The News
You see a little bit of yourself in a story when the victim looks like you, explained Robert Hawkins, an associate professor in poverty studies at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University.
“As an African-American father myself, I don’t think my child lives in an unsafe neighborhood. I know he doesn’t,” Hawkins told HuffPost. “But I do know that he lives in an unsafe world because as a black boy walking down the street there’s always a target on his back.”
Traumatic things are more traumatic in some ways because you know these things not only are happening to people like you, but they typically happen to people that look like you, Hawkins said. “And it historically has happened to people who look like you and people who were your ancestors.”
Children absorb their parents’ experiences, including the stress and anxiety, he said. Sometimes it creates unspoken anxiety. Even though traumatic news or an event affects them emotionally, kids may not understand the level of anxiety that they are dealing with. And sometimes kids think that the trauma or violence happens on a much bigger scale than it does, Hawkins said.
Some kids become more withdrawn. Some become more hyperactive, he said. “And all of that affects sleep and sleep patterns.”
Not Sleeping Is A Natural Response
Not sleeping is the body’s expected response after hearing about and watching disturbing events, said sleep psychologist Jason Ong of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
When people are stressed, the body stays vigilant to prepare itself for anything that might happen, Ong told HuffPost. “And when we’re vigilant our brain wants us to stay awake.”
Stress hormones get released. The emotion-processing areas of the brain stay on, suppressing some of the sleep-promoting systems, he said. “Even though the sleep systems are saying ‘we’re tired and sleepy,’ the other part of the brain is saying, ‘Wait a minute. We can’t be sleepy because something’s going on and we need to deal with it.’”
How To Cope
Dealing with that stress is usually the best thing you can do to help your child sleep, Ong said.
Of course, solving the social and structural problems at the root of the current crisis (to truly alleviate those stressors) will take much more than one ― or even several ― parents can do. But there are simpler actions you can do to take the edge off, such as talking it out. That helps us process our emotions and understand the things we’re struggling with, Ong said.
Turning off the news ― especially at night ― and limiting your exposure to violence and media coverage is also helpful. Leave a buffer zone of at least 30 to 45 minutes before you try to sleep to allow yourself to relax, he advised. Meditation, relaxation exercises, yoga and deep breathing are all things that can help the body deactivate and get ready for sleep.
For kids, it’s important to avoid discussing bothersome news or events in the evening and limit how much news they watch, pediatric sleep expert Jodi Mindell, professor of psychology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, told HuffPost.
“Nighttime is when things seem scarier and when kids are often alone with their thoughts,” she said.
Here are a few other things parents can do to help children cope with traumatic news and national tragedies:
1. Remind kids of what keeps them safe
Remind kids of what does keep them safe: parents watching over them and emergency workers in their community who protect them. Identify the trustworthy people around them, the National Association of School Psychologists recommends.
Sometimes that means reminding kids that there are good people and bad people ― and in the wake of last week’s shootings, that there are good police and bad police, Hawkins said.
Young children may not be able to fully understand, but they can understand the difference between good and bad, he said.
2. Help kids express their feelings
Fear, shock, anger, grief and anxiety are all typical emotions for kids to feel after traumatic events. Putting these feelings into words by talking about them, journaling or making art can help children cope with and understand those feelings, according to advice from the American Psychological Association.
3. Stick to the normal routine
Bedtime routines ― from reading or telling stories to eating dinner together ― help kids relax and feel safe before sleep. Following those routines during stressful times is important, too, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. If the usual routines can’t be kept, make new ones together.
4. Give them a little extra TLC
When it comes to trouble sleeping after a traumatic event, extra support and attention can go a long way in easing kids’ nerves and making them feel comfortable, according to the NIMH. Let kids sleep with a light on or with you, the parent or guardian, for a time until they feel less worried.
But parents need to walk a fine line of only changing behaviors when their child really needs that extra support, Mindell said. Otherwise a change in the routine can send the message that there is something to be afraid of.
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.