If you’ve read my post on listening and talking to your kids about what they see on the news or read online, then you are probably looking for steps on how to alleviate your kids exposure and response to worry and anxiety. It’s important to listen to your child’s fears and concerns. But it’s even more important to remember that our children look to us to make them feel safe. This is true whether you have a toddler or a teenager. I reached out again to Dr. Tim Herzog, a licensed professional clinical counselor in Annapolis, Maryland with specialized training in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, for some advice on how to create mental and emotional safe zones for modern kids as relates to learning and talking about current events.
- Keep routines as normal as possible. That means keep dinner, exercise, sports, church and play dates as you would normally. Children gain a sense of safety from the predictability of routine, including attending school.
- Consider your own reactions.Your kids will look to the way you handle the news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will, too. If you spend your time scouring the news, chances are they will be doing that too, even if its just overhearing what you are listening to.
- Limit exposure to television, radio, and smart devices. Listen, we know how sensationalized TV can be, and how the more grisly the images that come across our screens, the more captivating they can be. Constant exposure to scary images may actually heighten anxiety and fears. This means, of course that you need to monitor your own intake of the news. Use the chance to take a break form technology to spend time with your children doing something carefree and loving.
- Monitor. If you let your kids use the Internet, go online with them. Use this guide from Common Sense Media to Monitor where your kids are going, and set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals.
- Keep home a safe place.Home should be a safe haven. Remember to make it a place where your children find the comfort they need, even when its just a hug or an extra long cuddle.
- Remind them of situational safety. Try not to minimize or discount concerns and fears about immediate safety, but do try to reassure. Remind your child of all the layers of protection that exist from home, to community, to school (from home alarms to outdoor cameras, to police and firemen, to drills they are doing in school, to teachers receiving extra training). Now is a good time to remind your kids about age-appropriate etiquette for personal security (being with an adult, holding mom or dad’s hand, keeping away from police activity, listening to teachers and administrators, etc.).
- Watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety. After a traumatic event, it is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions. Dr. Herzog says that anxiety is a natural human emotion, one we have to learn to live with; if we can accept it first, then it is easier to mitigate it. “The trend for people in general, including parents, is to desperately work towards avoiding anxiety. If you always shield yourself or your kid from negative emotions, if you don’t learn how to sit with it, to let it come and let it go rather than giving it power, you (or your child) ultimately won’t learn how to manage anxiety or negative emotions as a natural part of life.”
- Find Healthy Coping Mechanisms. If your child seems worried or anxious, Herzog suggests finding tangible ways to get comfortable or cope with the feeling. Go for a walk, cuddle a pet, adjust your thinking or simply breathe in and breathe out. Your child might experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work or changes in appetite. According to the American Association of School Psychologists, this is normal and should begin to disappear in a few months.
- Rebuild and reaffirm attachments and relationships. Remind your child how beautiful the world is, how wonderful people can be and about all the acts of goodness you (and they) have experienced.This could be a great time for you to turn sorrow into power by doing something nice for a friend, neighbor or your community.
- Take action. Find a productive way to channel your family’s energy by committing to help those affected by the news. Kids can write postcards to politicians expressing their opinions; families can attend meetings or protests; kids can help assemble care packages or donate a portion of their allowance to a rescue/humanitarian effort. Check out websites that help kids do good.
Once you’ve established what your child knows and how they feel about it, you may find that your family needs outside help to manage irrational fears or anxieties. “If your child’s worries have mounted from “I feel scared about guns” to “I am not going to school because someone might be there”, its time to contact a counselor or psychologist”, says Dr. Herzog. “Parents are not, and should not try to be, their child’s counselor. It’s just not a role that parents are trained for or should try to play”.