Doomsday Talk: The Kids Aren't All Right

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Most parents are accustomed to debunking the boogeyman or assuaging monster-under-the-bed fears, but the recent hullabaloo concerning the prediction of the impending End of Days has some moms and dads facing childhood anxiety of apocalyptic proportions.  

Doomsday predictions often come and go without much attention from the public, but when Family Radio host Harold Camping set off a national campaign proclaiming May 21 as the beginning of the biblical End of Days, the American media took note, if only out of bemused curiosity.

Since the day came and went with seemingly no cosmic hiccup, Camping has now revised his prediction to say that the Rapture and end of the world will happen all at once on Oct. 21, triggering yet another countdown. And if Camping's October prediction is wrong as well, there's always the famed 2012 Mayan prediction of the end of the world to keep the talk of possible apocalypse buzzing.

While the majority of adults take no stock in these doomsday prophecies, all this talk of the world ending could be misconstrued by children, especially those in the 4 to 7-year-old range.

"It depends on how your children absorb media," said Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital. "If they're plunked down in front of the TV hearing 'the end of the world' a bunch of times and then seeing photos of the Missouri tornadoes, it may come together in their minds as something real and scary. Kids of preschool age have a hard time determining reality from non-reality and their imaginations are on fire."

Though most kids probably won't take Camping's predictions to heart, how they take it depends largely on how their parents react to these happenings and what their parents' beliefs are about how the world will end, said Alan Hilfer, associate director of child and adolescent psychology at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, NY.

"The kids are going to take whatever they take from this from their parents," Hilfer said. "If the parents are concerned, the kids will be concerned; if the parents are blasé and don't pay attention, the kids will take that attitude."

"If your parents were making plans for the end of the world, it very definitely affected your life," Dr. David Fassler, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont Medical School said of Saturday's apocalypse prediction. If kids had friends or family members that actually believed the world was about to end soon, "I can imagine the whole experience may have been confusing and upsetting," he said.

But for parents who brush off these doomsday predictions but find themselves with a freaked out 5-year-old, pediatric experts give the following advice:

"Parents need to tell distressed kids that Camping is misguided and shouldn't be taken seriously," Hifler said.

"Don't cast off their concern, but use it as a time to explain that for scary things like natural disasters, there are things we do to keep ourselves safe," Swanson said. "We have emergency kits or store water in the garage. We brush our teeth and go to the doctor to make sure we're healthy. Give young children a sense of control over their lives.

"Ask them what about what they hear makes them nervous," she said. "Parents shouldn't assume that they know what's scaring their child; they should ask and let the child express that fear so it can be dealt with."

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