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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.