Life is a scary place. Tornadoes, fires, earthquakes, cancer, car wrecks, terrorist activity in Europe (sometimes in the U.S.), war in the Middle East, and now headlines of President Trump and Kim Jong-un hurling threats of fire and brimstone at each other.
It’s enough to make you want to crawl under the bed and never come out. Parents may wonder, “If that’s how we’re feeling as adults, what impact is scary news having on our children and what can we do to help them have courage?”
Scary events frequently happen “over there,” to someone else, but the truth is, we could experience a scary event at any time. We need to acknowledge that with our kids, and help them keep a healthy dose of realism from turning into “frozen by fright.” To do this successfully, parents need to be aware of how they are handling their own fear, notice what information their children want/need and, most importantly, help kids manage uncomfortable feelings in a balanced, healthy way.
Kids pick up on feelings
We need to be aware of how we’re responding to stressful events. If your children notice something is wrong, it’s OK to let them know you’re feeling sad or worried. But at the same time, share with them your strategies for releasing those emotions, whether it’s talking, listening to soothing music or screaming into a pillow. Then practice strategies that are helpful to them — together. That way, you’re learning effective coping skills as a family.
Listen to what they ask and don’t ask
Limit information to “need to know.” Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, author of “Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Them Roots and Wings,” suggests, “Let children give you clues about how to meet their separate needs, and don’t assume that one size fits all.”
Answer questions simply, honestly and briefly. Don’t give in to the urge to fill in all the details and back story because that may be more than they wanted to know.
It’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” because lots of times, you don’t.
- Younger children may be satisfied with the simplest answers, and if you’re calm about it, they will be calm about it.
- Older children will be exposed to more information and may want to know how something might impact them directly, so you might research the answers to their questions together. This gives you the opportunity to gauge their reaction and determine when it’s time to stop and do something else.
Reassure, but no promises you can’t keep
“I won’t let anything happen to you” is not a realistic promise. You can’t control everything and your kids know it, so don’t lie to them. Instead, share with them what you are doing to keep them safe and create a family plan for “what if’s” that directly target children’s fears.
For instance, if children are afraid of not being able to reach you by phone, make sure they have backup phone numbers for adults they can call if they need help. Point out what safety personnel— police, firefighters, etc. — are able to do and make sure your kids know how to contact them in an emergency.
Routines are comforting
One of the best things we can do for kids is to maintain routines. They send the message that many parts of our lives are still normal, even if something is horribly NOT normal. I have seen so many kids show up for school even the day after losing a parent or sibling to death. On the surface, it may seem like being at school would add to their stress, but what it really does is provide them a way to stay busy and feel more normal.
Ask your children what they need
If they are reluctant to talk about feelings, engage them in a physical activity: Take a walk or bike ride together, or draw pictures and tell each other about your drawings. You might be surprised by what comes out when you start with the physical and then move into conversation.
Finally, practice resilience
Resilience means “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (Merriam-Webster). We are resilient and our children will be, too, if we teach them how to be. Teaching them courage means we have to show courage ourselves. It doesn’t mean we’re never scared. It means that we face down the fear with living.