Helping Kids Feel Safe When The World Feels Scary

Here are some lessons we can teach our kids when they're feeling scared.

Over the past year, our kids have been exposed to a variety of realities including a global pandemic, racial unrest, public protests, police brutality, social restrictions, and recently Russia’s attacks in Ukraine — all of which can be confusing and, in some cases, scary to them.

Like most parents, Katie Bartholomew struggled how to properly address difficult conversations with her three young children about a world now infected with confusing new realities.

“It took me at least a week to talk with my kids about the protests,” says Bartholomew, a mom of 6-year-old twins and a 3-year old. “But when I did, it became very clear to me that these were conversations that needed to start early.”

“As a white family, we need to be talking to our children about race from an early age so they are able to develop language and understanding that will help them on their own life journeys,” says Bartholomew, executive director of the Family Service and Mental Health Center of Cicero.

Despite her professional position in the mental health field, she too has felt confusion how to best answer questions that most children have asked their parents over the past few months: “Will things get better? When will it all end? When can we go back to normal?”

Questions, then answers

Parents should allow children to ask such challenging questions, experts say, and to answer those specific questions in a simple, direct and age-appropriate manner.

“Parents should wait for the child to ask another question and then repeat the process. This will keep parents from talking about things beyond a child’s ability to understand,” says Dr. Eric Herman, a child psychologist at DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “Parents should also protect younger children’s exposure to news sources that will only confuse and scare them.”

Most importantly, parents should remind kids, of any age, that they are safe and loved. Providing such stability and reassurance in a measured tone is just as crucial. Children are intuitive “emotional sponges” regarding their parent’s feelings.

“The tone of voice and the mood with which this information is delivered is as important as the information itself,” says psychotherapist Lori Kanat Edelson, owner and director of the Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Mich. “If parents seem calm and reassuring, they will not upset their children. Conversely, when parents are tense and stressed, and their elevated mood is evident in their voice, their children are likely to absorb the mood even if the information is direct and honest.”

And if you are overwhelmed, the kids will notice, says Dr. Scott Hoye, a licensed clinical psychologist with Chicago Psychology Services.

He reminds parents that younger children need more of an imaginative engagement, such as books or telling stories, to grasp such complicated topics.

“Stories that can engage their imagination with some sort of positive outcome after strife can be helpful to ensure them things will work out,” he says. “And that their family will still be there for them.”

Older children are better equipped to understand adult topics, so they can be approached with more of an explicit, candid discussion.

“Being honest about your own worries can also be helpful to instill the lesson that it is OK to feel vulnerable at times,” Hoye says. “Ultimately, it is a lesson how emotionally attuned adults behave, learn and grow in the face of uncertainty. By taking the time to discuss these issues with your children, you teach by example.”

Dr. Abigail Gewirtz, author of the new book, When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids, suggests for parents to look for telling facial expressions and body language with kids, and to have expectations of upcoming questions.

“For example, if you have a 5-year-old child who wants to know what it means that grandma is in the hospital with the coronavirus, providing information about the details of treatment, such as ventilators and drug combinations, is likely overkill,” Gewirtz says. “Your child can’t understand the nuances of symptoms and illness. It’ll suffice to say that she’s in the hospital because there are doctors and nurses who can look out for her all the time.”

Books are an excellent resource for talking with children about sensitive topics. Your local library is a helpful, possibly curbside resource.

“There are beautifully written books on a wide range of topics that help give parents and children the language they need to have difficult conversations,” Bartholomew says. “It’s OK to admit you don’t have all the answers. You can always suggest you’ll research the topic more, or reach out to someone else who might be able to help answer a question.”

Don’t try to shield kids

A common mistake that too many parents make is to avoid the conversation in a misguided attempt to buffer kids from the world’s harsh realities or temporary government restrictions.

“Not dealing with problems can lead to more challenges,” said Richard Bryce, chief medical officer at the Community Health and Social Services Center in Detroit. “It may be difficult for kids to understand why they can’t go to the park or visit their friends. However, the beauty of a child’s heart is that it usually understands the power of helping others. Many kids can understand the complexity of social distancing if it is described in the manner that it helps all of us.”

Bryce’s 3-year-old son, Mateo, couldn’t understand the complexities of COVID-19. He did, however, understand that “germs are bad.”

“So although Mateo was unable to go our neighborhood park for a month, he was OK with it because the park had germs,” Bryce says. “This also is very effective at getting him to wash his hands.”

Although this era may indeed be “unprecedented and uncertain,” there are universal skills and timeless truths to help children make sense of the social chaos.

Security and predictability are nightly lullabies that still provide comfort, even for know-it-all teenagers.

Also, stick with bedtime rituals, daily routines and eating meals together. As for extended families, if you can’t see grandpa in person, find ways to visit him virtually.

Do your best to stay on the same emotional bandwidth that preceded all the hot-button stressors.

“I have spoken with many young people who feel overwhelmed and upset by the stories and images on television and social media,” says Dr. Wilfred van Gorp, a neuropsychologist and past president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology.

“These times feel so uncertain because people feel helpless and are confused about what comes next. Gaining a sense of control over our own lives is important to being able to process some of what we’re seeing in a more healthy and productive way. Even if the news remains so chaotic to children.”

The parent-child relationship still depends on trust more than detailed information, hard facts, or long-winded explanations. “A conversation does not need to reach definite conclusions or provide neat solutions to these problems,” van Gorp says.

Parents should look for silver linings within the stormy clouds of cultural upheaval. Handing out umbrellas of kindness and empathy to children can help them deal with what can seem like a downpour of fear and anxiety.

“Talking about scary world events teaches children to not avoid anxiety-provoking things,” Gewirtz says. “With you, their parents, helping them to understand and deal with it. In turn, they will learn that it’s worth engaging in the world, even when it seems scary.”

Hoye adds, “Ultimately, this time is very difficult for us as a species, as a nation and as families and parents. You are not alone in this.”

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