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Scary Things Are Happening: Help Your Children Cope

Parents can help kids feel safe in scary times.

Key points

  • Kids constantly monitor their environment for danger. Monitor the media they are exposed to.
  • Watch for signs that they're upset, and listen to what they say. Putting things in context can allay their fears.
  • Reassure them that you will always be there for them—and so will other people who care.
  • Teach them to look for the helpers.

Driving down the road, I heard a sudden sob from my three-year-old in the back seat. I pulled to the shoulder and opened his door, ignoring the traffic whizzing by. He was inconsolable and almost hysterical. It slowly came out. A camel had been killed by soldiers. In a zoo. In Kuwait.

He’d heard it on the radio news while we were driving to visit a friend for a fun play date.

Bad News Sells—And There's a Lot of It

That memory surfaced again when I pulled up the Washington Post and read reports of a shell-shocked elephant in Kyiv. I was thinking of all the small children, charmed by that gentle beast, who would catch a glimpse of that picture and have the war made just a little more real.

Disaster always sells, but it seems as if the last few years have given us a relentless stream. Rising illness and death from COVID. Wildfires with pictures that look like vistas from hell. Closed schools. Childhood mental health crises. Parents losing jobs. Racial violence and drive-by shootings. A local 5th grader stabbed a girl she was fighting with in the neck—at school. In the district my son teaches in, an 8th grader shot a police officer and stabbed a fellow student in the corridor between classes.

And now Ukraine. With image after image of people who look like they could be on their way to the mall or the recycling center making Molotov cocktails, shattered by bombs, or lying dead on the street. A March 2022 poll commissioned by the American Psychological Association found that 87 percent of American adults said there had been a "constant stream of crises without a break during the last two years."

Young Children Have Less Control, Fewer Defenses, and No Context

Many of us feel shattered, weary, or worn too thin. I notice my students are forgetful and unable to keep up with simple tasks they would have mastered easily three years ago.

But little kids—particularly the youngest—are very vulnerable right now. They have no control of the radio, the TV, the YouTube videos playing on their parents’ or siblings’ phones, or the magazine covers they are pushed by at the grocery store.

It may grind on adults and teens, but the youngest kids have fewer defenses.

What To Do?

1. Monitor. Monitor. Monitor.

Be aware of the media environment your child encounters. Children in the room? Turn off the news. Put away the papers or magazines. Listen to music in the car rather than a radio station that plays news at the top of the hour. Talk radio? Right out.

2. Listen to their fears.

Small things that seem like nothing to you can terrify a child. Look for signs that something is wrong and take the time to ask what it is. “How are you doing?” is a great question—and a natural one to ask when they’re hanging around the kitchen while you cook or snuggled up next to you with a book or playing with the dog.

I remember my kindergarten teacher telling us a hurricane was coming and about all the destruction that hurricanes can cause. I was convinced our roof would collapse and we’d all be carried away in the storm. My mom found me hiding in the backyard and put things in context. We had hurricanes most years. The house had been through them before and we had everything we needed to get through.

Things would be okay. It's what I needed to hear.

3. They need to know you’ll be there.

There are things that are scary and bad and can’t be fixed. There are things that they can’t be protected from or that they’ll see that will scare them. The pandemic has been scary. Wildfires are scary. Racism is scary. What is happening in Ukraine is scary.

And there’s nothing that you, as a parent, can do to make those things go away.

But you can assure them that you will be there for them. That you love them. That they won’t be alone. That you will do everything you can to protect them. And that other people care about them too. Friends. Grandparents. Teachers. Ministers.

More than anything else, that’s what they need to hear.

4. Look for joy. Work for calm.

Focus is important. Help your child learn to savor how good something tastes. Help them notice that their floor looks great and they feel good after they pick up their clothes. All the little things that make a day better. They are everywhere. It's important to learn to look.

Kids—particularly young children—can also be taught to use their imaginations to promote calm. I began teaching my children to calm their minds and bodies before they were in kindergarten. Just as my mom taught me. She taught me to imagine myself frozen and lying in the sun. I would slowly melt, feeling my muscles relax as I drifted to sleep. I talked to my kids about lying on the beach and listening to waves, with the lapping water slowly taking away the tension. I used breathing techniques with them frequently. Even the littlest child can do square breathing. All of these self-soothing techniques can be done any time the child feels tense.

5. Look for the helpers.

Finally, as Mr. Rogers says, help them see the helpers. Looking only at the trauma and the hurt can make anyone feel helpless. Looking at what others are doing to make things better allows us to see how we can help ourselves and have faith that others will be there for us as well.

In times like these, that’s what kids need to hear.

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