The world can be a scary place for children – especially these days. From worrying about school shootings to terrorist attacks to devastating natural disasters, kids are faced, it seems, with a never-ending stream of upsetting events. The situation is certainly made worse by the 24-hour news cycle and the near-constant stream of social media.
As a pediatric psychiatrist, I understand how crucial it is for my young patients and their equally anxious parents and caregivers to make sense of our increasingly uncertain world. In time of crisis, protecting a child’s emotional well-being is as important as guarding his or her physical safety. I’ve found that there are effective strategies for helping children cope with their emotional responses to frightening situations, whether they are living through them or watching from afar.
Communicating About a Crisis
Open, honest communication with your child is the most important thing you can do to foster a sense of safety and well-being during a crisis. Use your child’s age as a guideline for your responses. With any age, it is best to avoid absolutes, such as “[School shooting/fire/whatever the crisis] will never happen to you.”
For preschool-aged children, touch is key. When young children receive lots of hugs and snuggles – and watch others give physical comfort – they feel cared for and safe. Preschoolers don’t need a litany of facts and details. State the facts generally. For example, after a school shooting, you could say, “Bad people sometimes do bad things.” When discussing why your child’s preschool is having a lock-down drill, try, “Your teachers want to keep you safe, just as I do.”
Be sure to bring the conversation back around to the positive by emphasizing that there are good people (you, family, teachers) who are doing everything they can to keep your child safe. Explain that this is why schools practice safety drills for a fire or if there is “a bad person” at the school.
For elementary school children, you may choose to provide more facts, but don’t over-saturate with details. Follow your child’s lead for how much he or she wants to know. If something truly upsetting has happened in the world and everyone else is discussing it, but your child is silent, that could signal a problem. Try gently raising the issue and encouraging some discussion around it. Suggested age-appropriate questions may include, “What just happened is really scary. How are you feeling about it?” Central to this is listening to your child’s answer completely, without interruption or judgment.
Also, be mindful of any changes in behavior (headaches, stomachaches or changes in schoolwork, behavior or sleeping and eating habits). If you notice these, contact your pediatrician or mental health professional.
For children in middle or high school, use open-ended questions to get the conversation going. Ask what they are hearing from friends and what kinds of conversations they are having at school about an issue or crisis. Car rides offer a great space for having these conversations – providing a quiet, safe space that takes the pressure off of face-to-face interaction.
With adolescents and teens, be on the lookout for any risky behavior or changes in mood or activities. This is the age when we see more traditional signs of depression or anxiety (nightmares and sleep issues, loss of appetite, withdrawal from friends or school).
If your child is not ready to talk, let him or her know that you are there and willing to have a conversation. Open the lines of communication, but don’t pressure. Provide opportunities to write and draw about how your child may be feeling as a way of communicating.
After a traumatic event, it is important to spend more time with your child. Sit down for family dinners and chat before bedtime. Take a walk or go to a playground. The idea is to increase your visibility and the opportunity for connection. It is comforting for kids to know that you are in it together.
Take a News Break
I tell all parents that it’s important to limit exposure to – or even take a complete break from – social media and media coverage during a crisis. For younger children, this means keeping the TV tuned to more innocuous programming and avoiding newspaper headlines and news magazine covers.
For older children, who get their news from social media, be mindful of the time they are spending on their phones. Taking a family “digital break” when at home may be helpful to keep them focused on more positive activities than reading online comments and watching videos about a tragedy, for example. Go on a family hike, watch a funny movie together or play an old-fashioned game of Monopoly.
Getting a good night’s sleep is also critical when your child is stressed, so consider collecting your child’s phone at bedtime.
When to Get Help
It’s perfectly natural to have a reaction when something bad happens. For both children and adults, it’s normal to cry, feel anxious or get angry when you are in the midst of experiencing a tragedy. If your child sees you expressing your feelings, give it words, such as, “I am feeling really sad for the people who were hurt by [name of the crisis].” This helps them understand that expressing negative emotions is normal for everyone. To encourage them to build their own coping skills, explain how you are helping yourself feel better – such as by talking to a loved one, reading, walking, listening to music or finding comfort through your faith life.
After a tragic event, it is okay to give a child a day to feel what he or she is going to feel. It is just as important, though, to move your child back to normalcy – school, sports, dance class, playing with friends – as soon as possible. I recommend keeping your child’s regular routine to help the healing process.
Keep a close eye on your child’s behavior. Is your child acting out and seeking attention? Withdrawing? Reverting to childish behavior (such as thumb-sucking)? If your child’s behavior doesn’t return to normal after two to four weeks, reach out to your pediatrician for advice. You may need to seek help from a mental health professional.
Good Health through Good Deeds
Giving children the power to feel positive in a crisis bolsters their well-being and strengthens resiliency. Seek out activities to do as a family in relation to the crisis. If it is a natural disaster, find a local organization that has a food or clothing drive. For younger children, what about a lemonade stand with proceeds going to the Red Cross in support of the victims of the disaster?
Going online together to see the good an organization is doing – and to see the impact your family can have – can help a child make sense of a tragedy. Something as simple as sending notes to first responders or the school (in the case of a shooting) can help children articulate their feelings and tap into their natural empathy – an important step to healing and a wonderful way to extend a connection to someone in need.
Above all, heed the airplane safety warning: Administer your own oxygen mask first. In other words, practice good self-care. Your child will look to you to see how you are handling a crisis and will take his or her cues from you. Be honest and open about your feelings, and make sure you are communicating with others and engaging in healthy activities.
For more tips on helping children deal with traumatic events, visit Save the Children’s tip sheet at savethechildren.org/us/what-we-do/us-programs/disaster-relief-in-america/hope-children-cope-with-crisis.