The link between personality traits and loving conspiracy theories, explaining anti-vaxxers to your child, and addressing your kid's social anxiety coming out of quarantine.
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“A younger child just needs to be told that 'Not everyone needs to agree on everything.,' or 'People don’t always agree on things,' or 'Different people have different opinions.' It’s an opportunity to teach tolerance of another person’s point of view.”
"My cousin is into conspiracy theories. It is driving the rest of the family nuts. Is there a personality trait or development issue that makes some people more susceptible to conspiracy theories?"
Signed Cousin J.
As our country is divided, so are our families. While we can all be manipulated, some people are more susceptible. If you don’t trust the government or science or western medicine, you’re more likely to believe conspiracy theories. It’s hard to trust when you feel disen-franchised and ignored, left out of the bargain by people who you think feel they’re better than you. There are many people who feel this way as the world around them is changing faster than they can or want to change. It feels as though everyone wants a piece of your pie and there won’t be any left for you. You become willing to believe that there’s a secret plan to take over the country for the benefit of everyone except you. And so you believe QAnon, which provides answers of a sort and membership in a large family of folks who are searching for the truth about what’s really going on. It’s seductive. It becomes a big part of your identity and very few people are willing to give it up. Conspiracy theories and political beliefs now seem to be interchangeable. People want validation and sadly they are finding it in the angry world of distrust and dissent that they feel proves their intellectual and moral superiority. A few good articles to read up on the subject.
New York Times:
"My boyfriend ’s 22-year- old granddaughter just took her life. Both the grandfather and dad think they could have done more to save her, even though they really gave her enormous amounts of assistance. We think she was schizophrenic or had some sort of personality disorder. I can see their pain and their sense of guilt. How can we help them as a family? I know they did everything they could for her."
Signed sad family friend.
When someone chooses to leave our company through suicide, we are left with feelings of pain and guilt. We wonder if in any way we contributed to this person’s despair. Could we have done more? A suicide is always a tragedy especially when the person is young. I think we recognize the despair as something we may have once felt but overcame and went on with our lives. We believed that things would improve and they did. This young woman no longer believed that things would get better. We will never know the weight of her despair.
But you asked how to help the family, how to help them in their time of grief. Maintain contact, visit frequently, spend quiet time with them, and use his granddaughter’s name. Encourage them to talk about her in any way they wish, old childhood stories as well as recent events. They have a lot to process and people are often uncomfortable discussing a suicide for fear that others may judge them. The family is often shocked by their own feelings of shame and anger. Try to provide a place of emotional safety for them in an effort to help them.
"Our 4 1/2 -year-old son has a wild imagination and often incorporates words dealing with death and dying. Words like kill, coffin, etc. Is this anything to be concerned about?
Signed concerned parents.
There was a great article last year in the New York Times* called, “Why do 4-year-olds love talking about death?” The answer was partially that this is when they begin to wrap their heads around the concept of death. The first concept they confront is Non-functionality; the body doesn’t work any more. The next three concepts are Universality; everyone must die, and Irreversibility; once you’re dead you don’t come back, and Inevitability; you can’t avoid death.
This process doesn’t happen all at once but by degrees. Concept layered upon concept, reinforced by life circumstances such as the death of a family pet or a bird in the backyard. Looking at the bird that no longer flies can help a child begin to form these ideas. Burying the bird with ceremony is also very helpful.
The parents’ reaction to a child’s questions can be a determining factor in a child’s repeated questions. Children love attention so if conversation about death enlists a too enthusiastic response, you will get more questions. Answer only the questions asked, embellish at your own peril and remember this is the age of “Why, Why Why.” The idea of death is conceptualized slowly, bit-by-bit, and it starts at the age of four. Most of the concepts are understood by age seven, although I think struggle with the idea of death is lifelong.
*New York Times article by Jessica Grose, April 16, 2019.
"With vaccines rolling out and being so crucial to going back to normal, how do I explain anti-vaccinators to my kids, gracefully?"
Signed concerned parent.
I’m reminded of the story of a 3-year-old child who asked his pregnant mom if there was a baby in her stomach. She was dreading the questions she expected to follow when the child leaned forward and yelled, “Hello in there!” before continuing with his play. The level of explanation depends on the child’s age, both mentally and chronologically. The best course of action appears to be to answer the child’s question and nothing more. A younger child just needs to be told that “Not everyone needs to agree on everything.,” or “People don’t always agree on things,” or “Different people have different opinions.” It’s an opportunity to teach tolerance of another person’s point of view. “We don’t have to agree on everything to be friends.” Older children can be given a more nuanced response. “Some people are afraid vaccines might hurt you, but from what I’ve read, that isn’t true.” Honesty is important, but full disclosure is not always in the child’s best interest.
"Should I hide my emotions and fear about the Boulder shooting from my child? What do I say to explain my fear to a young person?"
Signed scared mom.
My Mom used to line up chairs in front of the biggest window in our farm house when I was young, so that we could watch the storm and the lightning and listen to the thunder. “The angels are bowling!” Years later I realized that she was terrified of storms and didn’t want to infect us with her fear. You must keep the full extent of your emotional reaction to the shooting toned down for your children. Try to minimize the presence of photographs and news stories in their environment. Questions from children under 6-years-of-age should be answered simply with one sentence answers. Older children’s questions should initially be answered with the question, “What do you think about it?” or “What have you heard?” It will give you information about their readiness to hear some of the basic facts around the tragedy. Share your feelings of sadness but be careful with your words. Simple phrases like “The world is falling apart.” are a bad idea as a child will hear you literally and become even more fearful. Encourage them to talk with you and tell you about what they’ve heard and what they think. This will be a topic of discussion with their friends at school and may even be talked about in the classroom. You could ask them about what is being said by others. Shore up the feelings of security and safety in their lives even if you are worried about the world falling apart.
"With talk of the vaccine and everything opening up soon, my 7-year-old is showing signs of anxiety about going back to school. How do I approach this? Is this normal for kids this young?"
Signed 39-year-old father.
Anxiety in children is prevalent at this time for exactly the reason you’ve identified. Your 7-year-old just spent a seventh of her life at home with you, not being confronted with the social demands of the outside world. The anxiety of returning to school can be complicated by additional, sometimes unconscious, fears. I know of a couple whose marriage is in trouble and their small son knows that his presence often keeps Mom and Dad from rash actions. He worries that his returning to school might allow them to end their marriage, something he really doesn’t want. Even if he’s not conscious of these feelings, they are there anyway. This is an example of the many other reasons a child might be reluctant to return to the classroom. This past year has been disruptive for most people but perhaps the most affected are the children. In their short lives, this disruption has been major. The realization that life can change on a moment’s notice, that they had to stay home and wear masks and not see Grandma or Grandpa or play with their friends because of a virus, will leave an imprint on their world view and personality in good ways and bad. I would be anxious too.
-Romona Scholder, M.A., RNCS, Psychotherapist