Helping Children Feel Safe in an Unsafe World
How to reassure your frightened child without offering false promises of safety.
Posted Dec 14, 2012
The world is not a safe place. Just listen to the news: Shootings, drownings, accidents, disease, natural disasters… The list of possible tragedies is endless.
And yet, as parents, one of our core responsibilities it to launch our children. It’s our job to encourage our kids to explore and experience the world. But how can we do this when we can’t honestly guarantee their safety? How should we respond when our children are frightened by the very real dangers in the world?
We need to help our children develop effective coping strategies, but we also need to help them understand that they are not alone in their journey.
When tragedy strikes, whether it’s personal or related to a news event, children may feel very frightened. Here’s one way you can reassure your child without offering false promises.
I came up with this in response to the unanswerable “What if?” questions of an anxious young girl I was seeing in therapy. I couldn’t honestly tell her, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” Sometimes pictures can get through to kids in a way that all our adult words can't, so I pulled out a piece of paper and drew a small stick figure at the bottom. “This is you,” I told her. “Let’s talk about who’s in charge of keeping you safe.”
She said her parents, so I drew stick figures to represent them. Then she said her aunts, uncles, and grandparents, so I drew more stick figures above those. Then she said the police and firefighters, so I drew stick figures with hats. Then she said the military, so I drew stick figures with crew cuts. We worked our way up to the President–a stick figure with a flag. (You could top the list with your governor or senator, if that fits your family politics better.) I couldn’t give this little girl a guarantee of safety, but I could leave her with an image of layer upon layer of adults, standing between her and danger.
With older children, I’ve talked about how life—even just getting out of bed in the morning—is an act of courage and faith. It takes courage to face what’s ahead of us, knowing that there are no guarantees. And it takes faith to keep going: faith that we can get through hard times with the help of those who love us, and faith that, although it might not be immediately apparent, overall life is filled with more joy than suffering, more hope than fear, more love than hate.
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is an author and clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. #35SI00425400). She frequently speaks at schools and conferences about parenting and children’s social and emotional development. www.EileenKennedyMoore.com
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photo credit: “team planting” by Popofatticus / CC BY 2.0