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How to Help Anxious Kids When Bad Things Happen

We need to teach our kids that darkness cannot extinguish the light. That we will not let that happen.
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Unhappy three year old girl in bedroom holding comfort blanket to face
Unhappy three year old girl in bedroom holding comfort blanket to face

I sometimes wish I could take my children and live in a bubble -- immune to the violence, hatred and tragedies our world experiences. But although living in a bubble is tempting, we would also miss out on the wonderful sounds, smells and laughter this world can bring. And such is life. As adults, we can usually put these tragedies into perspective -- but if you have an anxious child, this might be a major challenge.

There are children who already imagine all the what ifs life can bring them. What if I die? What if I get sick? What if we get in a car accident? Public tragedies can only add to the credibility of their fear. A global tragedy has the potential to derail an anxious child and magnify all their fears. So how do you help the child who already worries about diseases, kidnappings, school shootings and natural disasters? One small step at a time.

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Awareness

Depending on your child's age, they may or may not be aware of global events. If your child is very young, they may not have exposure to the news. If you have a very young child who is already suffering from acute anxiety, I would not recommend discussing these global events unless they become aware of it. Those young children who are not old enough to be in school may not encounter the news, and unless we bring it to their attention, it could remain off their radar. These young children who already worry, sleep in our beds and live in our shadows throughout the day do not have the coping mechanisms to process a tragedy on a global scale. For older, school-aged children, we cannot cocoon them from such events. For these children, I suggest:

  • Avoid watching the news. Anxious children have detailed memories, especially for images. They have a hard time getting images out of their heads for months, or even years. Do not supply their brains with negative images.

  • Take your child's lead on what they already know, and start from there.
  • Keep graphic details limited, but give enough information to meet their need for understanding the event.
  • Ask your child if they have any questions. Don't be presumptuous; even as a child therapist, I am often surprised by the questions kids ask. Their questions will help guide where your discussion should go.
  • If the perpetrators of the tragedy have been caught, be sure to mention this to your child.
  • Watch adult conversations around little ears. Children in the other room are frequently listening.
  • Perspective

    Anxious children have a talent for taking a small event (e.g. missing a homework assignment) and jumping to catastrophic conclusions (e.g. I won't get into college!). Upon hearing about a global tragedy, your anxious child might jump to the conclusion that their immediate safety is at risk. They might become fearful that they are not safe at school or in public. This can be debilitating for your child. To help put a tragedy into perspective, you can do the following:

    • Show your child on a map where the tragedy happened. Although as adults we realize that tragedies can happen anywhere, children are much more egocentric. Distancing the tragedy from the child's life and world will help them feel safer in the short term.
  • Talk about the odds of a global tragedy happening in your community. You do not want to sugarcoat or lie about the risks the world has to offer, but anxious children already magnify all of life's risks. Help your child put the tragedy into perspective. There are roughly 7 billion people in the world. Tell them the number of people who were hurt (avoid the word "killed") in the tragedy. For example, "That's 200 people out of 7 billion." The odds of winning the lottery are 1 out of 175 million -- not billion. You have better odds of winning the lottery than being in a global tragedy.
  • Highlight the Good in Humankind

    This point is so crucial for all of us. It is so easy to get consumed by the hatred and senseless violence of humankind. It can feel scary and hopeless for the best of us. For anxious children, who are already worried about bad guys around every corner, this fear can be paralyzing.

    • During tragedies, focus on the random acts of kindness and the unity the situation brings out in others.

  • Tell your child stories about those who helped during the tragedy.
  • If you come across pictures that emphasize kindness and unity, show them to your child. Avoid pictures that have any graphic elements in them.
  • Channel Your Child's Emotions Into Positive Action

    Anxious children tend to have huge hearts. They often feel other people's pain and suffering more deeply. Channel your child's emotional energy into making a positive change. Having them do something to help in the crisis can make them feel like they have the power to make a difference. It gives a feeling of control in an uncontrollable situation.

    • Children can earn money to donate to the Red Cross.

  • They can make art for the victims that you can then post on social media.
  • If they ask how they can help, you can search the web for ongoing ways to help the victims of the tragedy and share what you find with your children.
  • In the days, weeks and months after a tragedy, observe your child's behavior to assess how they are handling their anxiety. If you have concerns, seek out professional help. Some warning behavior might include, but is not limited to:

    • Frequent nightmares

  • Fear of going to public places and/or school
  • An increase in somatic complaints (stomachaches, headaches and other physical complaints)
  • New fear of sleeping alone
  • New fear of separation
  • Excessive worry and talk about the tragedy
  • Frequent questions about their safety, weeks and months after the incident
  • I wish we didn't have to have these discussions with our children. For those little minds and hearts that already worry about so much, I am saddened that this has to be added to their plate. But with rain comes rainbows, and with lemons come lemonade. We need to teach our kids that darkness cannot extinguish the light. That we will not let that happen.

    Natasha Daniels is the author of How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler. For more of her parenting articles, visit AnxiousToddlers.com or follow Natasha Daniels on Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.