Let’s face it: there’s a lot going on in the world, from the refugee crisis overseas to the combative political climate in our nation. Even if they’re not watching the news, your kids are probably picking up on some of your reactions, no matter how hard you may be trying to protect them, says Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D., psychology professor at Hunter College and director of the school’s Stress, Anxiety, and Resilience Research Center.
“Kids are little emotion radars. They really pick up on everything, and if we think we are hiding things from them, then we are in denial,” she says. As your tweens become increasingly aware of big news stories, there’s a strong possibility they may become worried or scared about what’s going on in the world. Even if you’re not able to fix the world’s troubles (yet), you can help them feel safe and less anxious. Here’s how to help kids who may be feeling scared by the news.
Acknowledge Feelings of Fear and Anxiety
For children, what they don’t understand can be scary, Dennis-Tiwary says. So a parent should validate their emotions and help them understand the events that are creating anxiety. Providing an emotional and intellectual framework is the first step to helping them feel safe. “Without a frame—without some sort of language, story, or narrative that they can anchor their emotions to—it becomes an uninterpretable world,” she points out.
A key step is having a conversation where you and your child both ask each other a lot of questions. By doing this, “you can co-create meaning that’s consistent with your family values,” she says.
Your child’s maturity level will determine what kind of conversation will best help, but there are some good general guidelines to follow:
- Let your child’s questions drive the discussion. What they’re worried about may not be what you’re worried about. Make sure not to overload them with too much information.
- Don’t avoid any question your child brings up. Ask follow-up questions to make sure you understand what’s being asked and what’s already known.
- Answer truthfully in a way that they can understand. Only you know your kids and what they can handle, so use your best judgment.
- Have an open-ended dialogue. Listen to the responses, and always ask if they have questions. Make sure to have a back-and-forth conversation.
- Be honest and reassuring. At the end of the conversation, see how your kids are feeling. Reassure them in a way that feels right to you. Reassure your kids that things will be okay and that you will keep them safe.
When Tragedy Happens, Remember You’re the Grown-Up
News of terror attacks and other tragedies may be particularly scary. If it’s possible, it’s best to shield your child from your initial intense reaction, says Deborah Gilboa, M.D., family physician and author of Get the Behavior You Want... Without Being the Parent You Hate!. “Call a friend, call your own parents, call a partner if you have one, and have your first strong reaction away from your kids,” she advises.
If, however, you’re with your child when you learn of a tragedy, it’s okay to be open with them. “It’s a good lesson for our kids when they see us have emotions that we need to process, as long as we can process them in a healthy way,” Gilboa says. “Don’t reach for alcohol.”
Acknowledge what you’re feeling, but remember that you are the grown-up. “Don’t try to get your child to make you feel better. You can say, let’s hug each other and give each other support, but you have to be the person that your kids can rest upon rather than the other way around,” Gilboa points out.
Ask Your Kids to Get Involved in Positive Changes
If your kids continue to express fear, ease the negative feelings by saying, “It sounds to me like you’re scared. What do you think we can do?” By focusing on positive ways to change a situation, explore how your kids can get involved in the local community to make things better, like getting involved in relief efforts or volunteering to increase awareness for more help. Help your child see that they can be part of the force for good changes, and that there’s generally more good than evil in the world.“Mister Rogers used to say that his mother always told him, ‘When something goes wrong, look for the heroes,’’ Gilboa recalls. “So read human interest stories to find out who rushed in and saved somebody, who volunteered afterward for hours to help people find their loved ones, who drove water to the scene. …Great tragedy brings out really strong good in people, and that’s a great way to counteract fear for our kids.”