Helping Kids When Bad Things Happen

The news has been devastating to watch these past few months but as parents, we must watch to stay informed. If your kids are elementary school aged, it is likely they too know what is going on in the news. Whether they have heard flurries of it from classmates, or overheard you watching TV at night, it is hard to keep the news away from them. 

For those of us in Austin, the news has been especially pressing. With bombings occurring through March, we had to talk to our kids to keep them safe. We had to tell them not to touch packages--or anything suspicious on the ground. We had to let them know to watch where they were walking and be on the lookout for strange wire. They could feel our anxiety and sadness at the state of the world but it's important not to put that weight on them--to teach them how to be safe--and acknowledge their questions and answers without teaching them fear.

I remember calling my dad to pick me up from school early after watching the twin towers fall. I cried to him, how could someone do that? How could someone have so much hate? He told me the truth--that he didn't know. Following September 11th, I had severe panic attacks. They would happen at school and at home. I no longer felt safe in the world.

Our children are growing up in a different time than we did. Though we had plenty to fear, having seen what happened at Columbine and The World Trade Center, our children are growing up in a world where school shootings occur nearly every week. Our elementary school students are taking part in lockdown drills, and rather than being told to think it could never happen here, they are learning that it could happen anywhere. 

Our children have every reason to be anxious with thoughts of lockdown and serial bombers but how to we stop fear from becoming anxiety?

Recognize fear vs. anxiety

Being afraid of something is very different than being anxious. Though you may brush off your child's anxieties as typical childhood fear, notice how it is manifesting. Anxiety presents in different ways in children. It may look like constant worry, irritability, avoiding situations deemed unsafe (though they aren't unsafe), inability to concentrate, or clinging to parents. Because children often don't have the language to label their feelings as anxiety, it may be displayed in any behavior that seems out of the ordinary.

Validate Your Child

You may not realize, brushing off your child's fears can be a way to calm your own fears. While it is important to make our children feel safe, it is important to validate them, no matter how big their worries. When we disregard our children's worries, they may stop sharing them with us. When their worries are not shared, they are held inside and are more likely to develop in to anxiety. 

Answer Questions

Allowing questions to be asked and answered will help calm your child's curiosities. Make them feel comfortable getting accurate, thoughtful information from you rather than getting wrong, possibly scary, information from friends at school. 

Advocate for Your Child

Find out what is being talked about at school. Find out how your child's school is handing lockdown drills and work with the school to let them know how to best support your child and other students during this drills. Our children are living in a reality of school shootings being a common concern and lockdown drills being necessary but that doesn't make them "normal" or less scary. Be sure to spend extra time connecting with your kids on days the drills occur. This may mean getting ice cream after school, or extra cuddle time at night.

Be Part of Your Child's Safe Place

A therapeutic activity I do with many of my clients, both adults and children, is the safe place activity. Through this, the client establishes a place that feels completely safe to them and that they may go to in their mind when anxiety or fear comes about. In telling you to be a part of your child's safe place, your child should feel you are there even when you're not. You want your child to have a secure attachment bond and feel so safe with you that your child knows you would not send them in to a dangerous situation, so they feel safe even when you're not there. You want to be the presence of love, safety, and common sense that guides your child so your child doesn't need you there all the time.

Show up for them and be their strength when bad things do happen, so they know you will always show up for them--until they no longer need you to.