Stress from North Korea tensions can affect kids, child psychiatrist says

Initiating conversations with children may relieve their anxiety

SAN ANTONIO – It's been a stressful week, with threats passing back and forth between U.S. and North Korean leaders. With little clarity about what's going to happen, there's anxiety around the world.

A child psychiatrist said it's not just adults who are aware of the conflict, and there's a way parents can deal with that. 

UT Health San Antonio child psychiatrist Dr. Steven Pliszka said when it comes to comprehension, never underestimate children, even the little ones.

"You can have your 4-year-old in the back seat of the car while you're listening to the radio. They're hearing pieces of this, and that can become a real issue," Pliszka said.

He said elementary school age children are capable of consuming the news and having sophisticated questions and conversations about it.

"I'm an advocate of generally parents asking their kids, 'Well, have you heard about stuff in the news?'" Pliszka said. He said that avoids unresolved anxiety.

If a child doesn't go to a parent with questions, there are specific ways parents can start the conversation.

"Are kids talking about this in school? Have you heard about it? What do you think about it? If a kid says, 'Yeah I've heard about it. No big deal,' it's OK to leave it alone. But children who says, 'Yes, I'm very scared. I'm very worried,' then you can kind of go forward," Pliszka said. 

He noted especially with the older children, it's important to give a full picture of what's going on.

For the example of North Korea, he said: "So maybe the immediate fear is a missile is going to be launched. They have a nuclear bomb. I think it's important to point out that the country is well-defended. That other countries have had these bombs for many years and there hasn't been a war because nobody wants to get hurt."

Children pick up on adults' stress, so if parents are having a concerned conversation about topics like this, Pliszka suggests moving it away from the kids.

It's even more important to have these open conversations with children of military families. In Military City USA, it's common for children to have a parent deployed, and initiating talks like this can cut down on some anxiety for them.

Pliszka said to be aware of what children are seeing and how often they see it.

"Nowadays, so many people have the television on in the background all the time. If their 4- or 5-year-old is playing with their blocks on the floor, they’re going to be exposed to that, so it’s important to kind of turn the channel for that particular period of time," Pliszka said. 

If a child seems to be attaching stress to many things going on in the world and the community, he or she may be dealing with an anxiety disorder. In that case, the child may need to see a professional counselor.  


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About the Author:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.