How Do You Reassure Your Anxious Child When You’re Scared, Too?
School shootings and mass tragedies are saddeningly common in the U.S. today — and kids are picking up on our fear and anger. How can troubled parents and educators reassure children?
As caregivers, we want to show up fully for our children in these troubled times. It’s natural to want to protect them, even as we struggle to comfort ourselves. Our kids have this amazing antenna that can pick up on and absorb our stress. They notice when we’re feeling worried or a little bit off balance. And at this time when so many of us are feeling powerless and helpless by school shootings and gun violence, our kids are detecting and intensifying those emotions.
Many of us are scared, angry, frustrated and worn out. How can we counsel our kids and relieve their school anxiety when it’s so obvious to everyone that something is terribly wrong?
Step One: Prioritize Your Mental Health
To reassure your child following a school shooting or other act of violence, you first need to manage yourself. You need to process your own reactions before you attempt to talk with your kids. You may feel shut down, you may feel incredulous, enraged, or devastated.
If you are a survivor of gun violence yourself or you know someone who is, you may be overwhelmed with re-experiencing your own trauma while trying to manage your kids’ reactions. Talk about what’s going on with someone who cares, who understands, and who will offer you the support you need — whether that’s a professional or caring friend or family member. Keep your side of the street as emotionally clean as possible before you do anything.
Step Two: Listen First, Then Validate
We need to maintain our curiosity about how our kids are doing without necessarily giving them direct advice about what they should think or do. We want to be a listener first and a responder second. It helps to offer validation for whatever they are thinking or feeling. Ultimately, the goal is to teach them some skills for self-soothing and effective coping mechanisms in life, but right now they need to know that adults in their world are taking their safety and security seriously. Engage in conversations that explore personal and environmental supports and options for them to pursue when feeling uncertain to reduce worry and foster confidence.
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Step Three: Respond Appropriately
Before you say anything about current events, it’s important to do two things. First, consider what you want to say and, secondly, reflect on how you want to present information to your child based on their age and developmental level. Tweens and teens are going to be much more informed and opinionated. They may have their own ideas about what’s causing gun violence or other disturbing current events. Discuss those opinions with them in an open conversation.
Listen and ask questions; this isn’t a debate but a chance to hear their thoughts and concerns.
On the other hand, children under the age of 10 can be frightened by headlines about school shootings or disturbing images related to the war in Ukraine. They might not seek out the news themselves but rather hear things from their peers.
Give younger kids a one- or two-sentence summary about what’s happened so they’re informed, but not scared. Answer their questions honestly, but not extensively. They don’t need to know a lot of the details that could upset them further. If they hear what’s happened from other people or express distress about it, then inquire about their knowledge. If they don’t feel like talking, that’s fine. Just stay open and available for when they approach you to chat.
[Self-Test: Does My Child Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?]
Step Four: Maintain Consistency
Maintain as normal a routine as possible so that your child’s concerns do not fill up all their conversations or brain space. Routine is very grounding for kids, so maintain your normal everyday schedule so that they know what’s expected of them. Leave openings for conversations but don’t force them. Most kids will talk when they are ready.
Step Five: Don’t Dismiss Their Concerns
When comforting our kids, our knee-jerk reaction is often to reassure them. We tell them it’s going to be okay, or we dismiss their concerns, saying “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.” Well, there’s no absolute guarantee that bad things will never happen. We cannot reassure our children or tell them that with a straight face. But what we can say is that the probability of a school shooting is low. We can explain what personal and external resources they can use reliably in stressful situations. We can help them learn to name their worry or fear by saying, “I am afraid. I am scared, and what I’m going to do about it or who I’m going to talk to.”
Step Six: Keep a Watchful Eye
When there’s disturbing news and you are talking to children about sensitive issues, it’s important to monitor both their immediate reactions and their overall well-being. Look for behaviors such as excessive worry, school or summer camp avoidance, sadness, crying, increased irritation, withdrawal, poor eating, changes in sleep habits or difficulty enjoying previously pleasurable activities. These are all warning signs. If you start to see them and notice a pattern, then please consult with a professional: your pediatrician, a school counselor, or even a therapist.
Soothing Anxious Children: Next Steps
- Read: The Heartbreak of Childhood Anxiety
- Watch: Anxiety in Children: Overlooked Signs and Effective Supports
- Listen: Signs of Anxiety
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude Mental Health Out Loud episode titled, “‘Youth Traumas and Anxieties Today” [Video Replay and Podcast #404] with Sharon Saline, Psy.D., which was broadcast live on June 10, 2022.
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