In recent weeks, I've received calls from parents about how to help their kids manage fear and anxiety because they heard something on the news or came across scary images on the internet. I've actually had two particularly troubling calls where a child is scared to be around cars because they might blow up and another doesn't want to go to the doctor's office because someone might start shooting people. It's discouraging to say the least, but it's also an opportunity to heal.
What to do as parents? There is some good news. You've been fearful the entire time. It happened soon after your child was born and not because of terrorism, backlash, or mass shootings. You've been fearful because that's what it means to be a parent. Becoming a parent transforms your emotional world. The idea of caring about someone else more than yourself is no longer a notion, it's a way of life. It's embedded in your DNA. There are many, many joys to being a parent, but there is fear.
What does the future hold for my little ones? Will they be okay at school without me? Am I a good parent? How much have I screwed up my kid? Is this a moment for tough love or a big bear hug?
In the current climate of hateful speech and fear of the unknown, there are ways to help our children cope with the anxiety and symptoms due to stress. First though, let's start with you, the parent.
The Parent Psyche
Breathe. This is your anxiety. Not the kids, not the neighbors. What helps you manage your anxiety? Simple and purposeful breathing for even 30 seconds can relieve your anxiety, and shift your perspective. Try it for 30 seconds, focus on your breathing. Feel more relaxed, slightly?
Identify your feelings. Not in your head, out loud, maybe on paper. Anxiety is a sneaky thing. The more you push it down, the more power you are giving it. Disarm your anxiety by embracing it. The first step is to simply acknowledge you are feeling anxious and scared. That alone will provide relief and a sense of ease. Anxiety is a very normal part of your daily life.
Challenge your fears with reality. There is your experience, and there is reality. Overwhelming anxiety and emotions can sometimes shift our perspective to extremes. Does everyone hate me? Maybe we should move, like out of the country? I'm going to keep the kids home from school, wait I can home school them!
Have those thoughts, but then ask yourself what is reality. Not in the comments section of an article or what's on TV, what is happening in your life. Are you receiving lots of negativity or expressions of concern, care, and love?
Turn off the news. Isn't news kind of like a drug? You know it's not good for you but you can't help it. Well maybe just a little, just for 15 minutes. That 15 minutes turns into 2 hours. You already believe that the news is sensationalistic and biased, so why watch it?
Smile. The first thing another person notices about you is your facial expression. The first belief about someone happens in less than a second and is largely based on the person's facial expression.
When you smile, two things happen. First, smiling releases feel good neurochemicals associated with happiness and joy, which decrease anxiety. Second, it puts your child at ease which decreases their fear and anxiety.
Form relationships. A very effective way to cope with your fear and anxiety is to share your feelings with others. There is power in knowing that you aren't alone in your feelings, that someone else has access to your inner world. It can certainly be scary to share your private thoughts, but that's how real, meaningful connections are formed.
Stay connected with friends, and connect with those just outside your circle of friends. A neighbor, coworker, random person who goes to the same coffee shop. The current state of affairs will only change by connecting with one another. As a teen recently said to me, “It's hard to hate someone that you actually know.”
The Child Psyche
Listen. There is a difference between listening and hearing. When listening, you are attuned to what your child is saying. Listening allows you to discover what your child knows and is hearing, and how they are processing news and information. Each child is at a different developmental stage and processes their thoughts and feelings uniquely. By listening, you get a sense of how much information to share with them, what they can absorb, and how they are doing emotionally.
Validate feelings. Whether you agree or not, emphasize their feelings are normal and okay. However, a feeling is different than a statement. If your child says, “Someone is going to kill us!”, you can validate the feeling by saying “that's a scary thought” or “you sound really worried”. You are responding to and validating the underlying feeling first, which is a calming approach.
Educate simply. The information you present has to be age appropriate. The way you talk about pain, sadness, death, or happiness depends on whether you are talking to a 5- or 10-year old. Think about your child. Do they have nightmares from scary cartoons? Do they continue to refer to a scary story that you told, even if you have repeated it was only pretend? Does your child hear the news of a hurricane and think they are in danger, even though they live in a different part of the country or world?
Some kids can handle more than others. Keep your explanations simple and appropriate to your child's emotional capabilities. A child does not need to know the origins of violence, terrorism, or gun statistics.
Be reassuring. If and when your child expresses fear, reassure them with facts. Police, teachers, adults are all around to protect children. Even though it was on the news the actual chance of something bad happening is very small. Remind your child of all the good people in their life and around them. Share happy stories of hope and togetherness. Physically reassure them with a hug out of love, not safety.
Role play. If your child sees crime or violent act in the news, it may be helpful to role play with them. What would and should you do in this situation? Especially for younger children, role play with a safe outcome at the end. It's okay to say you can build a magic fort or Batman will save the day. The important thing for younger children is for them to feel safe. Safety can be in the form of having a safety plan.
Be aware. Teach and remind your kids about general, simple safety rules. Walking in groups. Alerting an adult where you are going and when you will be back. If you see a stranger in a familiar place, let a trusted adult or parent know. Increasing your child's awareness is a healthy process, it helps them feel more engaged and confident in their abilities and surroundings.
Be you. Lastly and maybe most importantly, make sure that your child knows they are great just the way they are. If someone says something derogatory about their race, religion, or other demographic, remind them that they are a great person. Help them understand that someone is being mean because of their limitations, not your child's. Much like a bully, people lash out and say hateful things because they in fact are sad, scared, and in pain.
These are certainly scary times for many in our society. Unfortunately, this is a social problem that won't be solved overnight. Keep doing good things and good things will happen. It's going to be okay.
As usual, feel free to share this post via facebook, twitter, etc. Comments are welcomed!
Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!