Shootings. Terrorist attacks. Police shooting people, and people shooting police. Riots. Violent protests.
The news is flooded with reports of murder, destruction, fighting, tension, and terrorism on a daily basis.
We are constantly bombarded with graphic images and headlines that invoke feelings of shock, fear, and grief.
Unfortunately, the most vulnerable of us – our children – are not immune from exposure.
You might be wondering what to say to your kids about all of this. Lately, it sure seems like the world is a terrible place, with danger lurking around every corner.
Fully shielding your kids from the horrible images and stories that are flooding the news and social media is impossible, but you can help them process their thoughts and feelings about what they are seeing.
And, you can provide comfort, reassurance, and guidance while being careful to avoid making the world sound like a dangerous place.
But before you can do that, you have to make sure you have the capacity to deliver the message. If you are a frazzled ball of anxiety, how will you be able to comfort your child?
When you fly on an airplane, the flight attendant instructs you to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others.
Why is this an important rule for improving your odds of survival?
Because if you run out of oxygen, you can’t help anyone else.
Children under your care will look to you for guidance, and your actions speak louder than words. Experts say that even infants can sense parental anxiety.
Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, explained this concept to CNN:
They are used to you, and then in a time of crisis, they’re looking to you for the cues, “Are we safe?” and if you’re running around going, “Oh, I guess I don’t feel comfortable going to work,” they’re certainly going to feel that way as well. You set the tone of what’s safe and what’s not.
David Anderegg, psychotherapist and author of “Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It,” thinks it’s the responsibility of adults not to let our anxiety rub off on our kids. He says it is okay to be honest with your children and say you are experiencing some anxiety and sadness, but don’t overdo it. Try airing out those feelings with other adults, not your kids, he recommends:
If you feel anxious and you need to talk about your anxiety or the tragedy or your sadness or grief or the lack of meaning or whatever it is that you need to talk about, you need to talk to other adults before you talk to your children, because other adults are the proper place to process these kinds of adult feelings. So, my advice is don’t use your child as your therapist.
This does require some acting on our part and I think acting is fine. Because talking to 12-year-olds and saying, “Oh my God, I’m really freaked out” … is not appropriate, because kids can’t do anything to keep themselves safe and all they can do is feel unsafe.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, explained to CNN:
It is not uncommon to see increases in nightmares, sleep disturbances and increased general anxiety in the wake of these events. While it is true that the horrific events of this past week can happen at any time, the real risk to individuals remains low. Children need [that] reassurance.
Dr. Claudia Gold, a pediatrician, infant mental health specialist and author, said:
When we feel ourselves bombarded by images of brutal, ruthless violence and evidence of unbridled hate, the question of how to protect our children is a complex one,” “We immediately jump to ask, ‘What do I say?'”
It’s okay to tell your children it’s a complicated issue and it’s tough for you to understand too, and that there are things we just can’t explain.
Experts say the age and temperament of the child determines what – and how much – to tell them:
- Age 5 and under: Children in this age range don’t need to be informed of events or exposed to media coverage at all.
- Ages 6 -11: Keep it simple. Stick with basic facts. Minimize exposure to news coverage.
- Teenagers: Considering the prevalence of social media in most teens’ lives, it is likely that your child will hear a lot about an attack or shooting before you get a chance to discuss them. Start by asking your teen what they already know. Some teens may not have much to say, but let them know you are available should they want to talk.
If you don’t have answers, it is okay to say so. Some questions just don’t have answers, and some problems don’t have solutions.
Tips for everyone
Turn off the news. Nonstop news coverage blasting on the television can make it seem like terrifying events are happening over and over. Repeated and prolonged exposure isn’t good for anyone – especially people who are prone to anxiety and children. Research has shown that children and teens can develop significant stress from media exposure.
Keep as normal of a routine as possible. This demonstrates that life is secure despite current events.
Spend quality time together. Family and friends are the foundation of your child’s world.
Be patient. If your child experiences separation anxiety or asks for reassurance. Everyone’s process is different.
Engage in relaxing activities. Listen to or play music, play board games, read, draw, or color.
Get physical. Go to a nature park or a beach, or for a trail walk or a walk around your neighborhood. Get some fresh air and exercise on a regular basis.
Unplug. It is healthy to disconnect from the digital world.
Find the helpers. Point out how so many people are coming together to offer help and support.
Reassure children that there are still mostly good people in the world. Let them know that you – and other people – are doing everything you can to keep them safe.
Show children stories of people helping each other, and not hurting each other. Seek out good news and share it with them.
Help your child find words to communicate their thoughts and feelings if you sense they are anxious or sad.
Be mindful of behavior changes and signs of anxiety, sadness, or stress.
Contribute to the good in the world
Let your children participate in efforts to make things better. This might include raising money for relief efforts, helping in community activities, or sending cards or drawings to survivors of an attack or victims’ families. This can help alleviate feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness.
Dr. Gene Beresin, psychiatrist and executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, sums up this point beautifully:
First and foremost, it’s our responsibility to comfort and reassure our kids, and to shield them from living with paranoia and excessive fear. Then, let’s work together to find ways to help us all be kinder, more gentle people who oppose solving conflict through violence.