Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Navigating the Tough Topics

Talking with your child about threatening events

Mom talking to daughter
When I was a child and my family discussed our escape plan in case of a fire, I recall worrying about whether I would be able to climb out of the window and onto the roof to escape a possible fire. And whether I would be able to help my little sister when I wasn't sure that I could handle it myself. The mere discussion of such a threat to my safety led to countless worries for me. So what must little kids think when they practice lock-down drills and have their bags searched at school for possible weapons?  How do kids psychologically cope with the news of threats to their safety stemming from other children, natural disasters, and terrorism?  And are we creating a generation of kids who will worry about their own safety constantly? 

This issue recently hit home for me when a school shooting occurred not far from where I live.  Like many parents, I spent the day shocked and horrified, imagining the fear those adolescents must have felt and the terror those parents must have experienced in the time between hearing about the shooting and the moment when they learned whether their child was safe. I could not imagine the grief of those parents who lost a child, the children who lost a sibling, and the adolescents who lost a friend. I wondered if school would ever feel safe to the kids who lived through this and whether they would return to the point where their biggest worries were about acne and prom.

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The fact is that children and adolescents are amazingly resilient.  They can survive unspeakable traumas and find a way to recover.  Many of these individuals will bounce back after an initial period of adjustment and grief over those who were lost.  But some will suffer symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, feeling numb, trouble concentrating, hypervigilance, being easily startled, loss of interest in things that they enjoyed, and avoidance of reminders of the trauma. For those who suffer these symptoms, therapy and/or medication can be helpful and these individuals can recover. The strength of the human spirit is remarkable and awe-inspiring and we can have hope that those touched by this event or other traumatic events will experience this strength and the support of others.

So how do we help our children to feel safe?  Or explain these types of traumatic events to our kids?  What do I say to my child when she asks me what a lock-down drill is for or why we have a moment of silence on September 11?  How much is too much to say and how much is too little?

There is not any one right way to handle this, but there are some guidelines that can be helpful.

1) Take your lead from your child. Don't force a discussion on your child. This can feel intrusive and as though it is for your benefit, not for your child's benefit.  These are delicate topics and the amount of information that you give your child should be driven by your child's questions and desire for answers.  A great way to start the discussion is to ask the child if he/she wants to talk about the topic.  If so, ask your child what he/she wants to know about it and then answer his/her questions.  If your child doesn't want to discuss it, tell your child that you are always happy to talk about these things at a later point if your child so chooses.

2) Be honest while also being comforting.  You don't want to pretend that awful things never happen. That is lying and can undermine your child's trust in you. Be honest that bad things do happen, but also be honest about the efforts that have been taken to protect your child and to ensure that these bad things will not happen to your child.  Lock down drills at school are one of those things, as are fire drills and tornado sirens.  You want to convey to your child that every effort has been taken to ensure that school (and home) are safe places.

3) Be calm when discussing these tough issues.  Children pick up on our emotions and can feed off of our emotions.  If we are calm when discussing something, that will convey a sense of calm and security to the child.  If you express your own anxiety about it, your child will resonate with that anxiety and become anxious.  If you do have anxiety about the topic, talk about it with your spouse or a friend, not with your child. 

4) Validate your child's emotions about the event.   For example, if your child says something about how it is scary that shootings sometimes occur at schools or that a natural disaster can happen, agree that it is scary.  Don't invalidate your child's emotions in order to try to make your child feel better.  Instead, agree with the child's expression of emotion but also convey to your child that everything is being done to ensure your child's safety.

5) Ask your child if he/she has any worries about the topic, discuss the worries, and if possible, problem solve around those issues.  For example, I wish that I had told my parents of my fear that I wouldn't be able to make it out of our house if there was a fire. I could have avoided years of worrying by mentioning that and problem solving with them about how to handle that issue.

6) Keep up the usual routine after a discussion with your child about these topics.  The usual routine conveys security to your child and that it was okay to have the discussion.  That makes it more likely that your child will approach you in the future with these types of concerns.

We all need to find our own way in talking with our children about these things and like much of parenting, it may feel as though you are flying by the seat of your pants. But it is discussions like these that demonstrate your willingness and ability to guide your child through life's challenges and that is what parenting is all about.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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