When kids face fear

With the tragic increase in gun violence in schools, many children feel anxious about the safety of their environments — home, school, community, the world. Caregivers are called to both reassure and protect their children, and also provide honest information about the dangers of our world. 

When a child says he’s too scared to go to school because he’s worried about his safety, how should a parent respond?  

Let them talk 

No matter how old a child is, parents should listen carefully and validate their child’s feelings. All feelings are OK. 

For older children who may respond to fears or anxiety with unpredictable or regressive behavior, be curious and compassionate about their underlying feelings. Whereas younger children may show their distress through play, older children may find talking, drawing or writing a more helpful way of expressing their worries. 

Provide opportunities for older children to ask questions about what they’re hearing at school or on the news. Setting up a special time to talk about their fears can help contain the feelings and thoughts so that at other times, children can focus on playing, learning and growing. 

When children don’t have a validating and supportive outlet for their worries, they’re more at risk to suffer from body aches, sleep problems, irritability, changes in appetite, withdrawal or strained social relationships. 

When answering questions, provide a developmentally appropriate response. For ideas about what to expect — and what to say — see tinyurl.com/tragedy-kids.

Prioritize activities

For younger children, provide reassuring rituals and consistency during times of heightened anxiety or stress. Worries often crop up more at bedtime or during transitions, so parents should do their best to make those times predictable and consistent.

In her book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity (2018), Dr. Nadine Burke Harris identifies six ways to support well-being so that we can be strong in our response to adversity. These are things adults and children alike should prioritize in their daily lives:

  • Maintaining a nutritious diet, eating together as a family and drinking enough water;
  • Getting regular exercise (two hours per week for adults, daily for children), including moving and playing in nature;
  • Engaging in a mindfulness practice such as meditation, yoga or gratitude/compassion activities;
  • Making time for restorative sleep (eight hours for adults and more for children) and turning off technology at least a half hour before bedtime;
  • Fostering positive and affectionate relationships and connecting with the community;
  • Seeking mental health assessments and treatments if symptoms increase in frequency, severity or duration. 
  • Prioritizing activities that foster well-being on a daily basis helps parents and children feel more prepared and resilient in the face of trauma, adversity and stress.  

Take action together

Doing something to help restore a sense of safety can empower children to feel as though things are not out of control, and that they can overcome adversity. Directly helping others who have been impacted or hurt and writing letters of support and notes of thanks to people who helped are actions that can help children experience communal compassion.  

Model your own feelings about the scary event so your children can see your feelings and what you do to manage them. 

Younger children rely more on adults to help them feel better, so modeling ways to calm down (taking deep breaths or asking for help) can help teach children ways to regulate themselves during anxious moments.  

It can also help to enlist other caring adults such as teachers, extended family members or neighbors. 

Seeing how all of these people are doing everything they can to keep the community safe can help children rebuild trust and maintain connections with others. 

Scary things happen in our children’s lives, and providing a developmentally appropriate response within a connected and secure relationship can help children feel more mastery over their worries. 

Dr. Rachael Krahn is a child psychologist with the Minneapolis-based Washburn Center for Children, a community mental health center that nurtures every child and family’s well-being. Learn more at washburn.org.