Helping Children Cope with a Scary World
Our world can be a scary place. As parents, we worry about our children growing up when wars, shootings, bombings and other horrific acts of violence seem to happen one after another. Frightening images stream across our TVs, computers and phones constantly. We wonder how to help kids feel safe and how to talk to them about their fears and confusion while we try to manage our own.
Age, personality, developmental level and previous life experiences influence how children respond to terrifying events. Following are some common signs that a child may be struggling to cope with a frightening incident:
Becoming unusually quiet or agitated; increased fear of being alone or being separated from parents/caregivers; fear of darkness and strangers; increased difficulty with changes and transitions; return to earlier behaviors such as thumb sucking and “baby talk”; loss of appetite or overeating; toileting accidents.
Difficulty falling or staying asleep; nightmares; physical complaints like headaches or stomach aches that don’t have a medical cause; behavioral changes such as becoming easily upset or aggressive; clinginess; worries about safety; difficulty concentrating; change in grades or academic achievement; loss of interest in friends.
Feeling depressed or hopeless; isolation from friends and family; changes in eating and sleep patterns; inability to stop talking about the event; loss of interest in social activities; becoming less responsible and independent; physical complaints or exaggerated fears of physical problems; significant increase or decrease in physical activity.
What You Can Do to Help
With time and support from parents and other trusted adults, most children return to feeling safe soon after the event. Here are some ways that adults can help children cope:
- Let your children know that you love them and will keep them safe. Young children might need more hugs and cuddling. Gentle words or just being present is important for older children.
- Because young children need physical contact during times of stress in order to reestablish a sense of security, structured games that allow physical touch with other children may be helpful. Teachers can organize games like “Ring Around the Rosie,” “London Bridge” or “Duck, Duck, Goose” to facilitate this.
- Teachers of middle and high school students can support class projects to help students channel their feelings of helplessness and anger into positive alternatives such as fundraising or blood drives.
- Explain what happened as accurately as possible but don’t offer graphic details or give more information than your child asks for.
- Be available to talk and answer questions at home and in the classroom. Reassure children that it’s okay to talk about how they feel.
- Some children might not want to talk about their feelings. Offer alternatives, like drawing a picture or writing a story.
- Because we are surrounded by the internet, TV, radio and social media that often replay terrifying images, young children sometimes believe that the events are happening over and over again. Young children should not be exposed to any media coverage, particularly visual media or pictures. Be careful to monitor how much your child (of any age) is exposed to coverage of the event and eliminate their access to TV or social media if necessary.
- Stick to daily routines. Most of us find comfort and reassurance in predictability. Meal times, bedtime, homework, playing with friends, classroom routines; all of these are important for children to continue to experience as “normal” when other things in their world might not be.
- Take care of yourself and manage your own stress in healthy ways. Get enough sleep, eat healthy meals, exercise, talk to other adults.
It’s normal for children to feel and act worried, scared or confused after a terrifying event. These behaviors might last for a few days or even a few weeks. If they don’t get better or they get worse, it’s time to seek professional help. Therapists and other mental health professionals are trained in a variety of evidence-based treatments to help children and adults of all ages when their fears and worries don’t subside with support at home.
Gael Thompson, MSW, LICSW, is the Early Childhood Intervention Program Coordinator for Amherst H. Wilder Foundation’s Child Guidance Clinic in Saint Paul, Minnesota.