How to Help Children through Scary Events

We all know the world can be a scary place with sudden eruptions of violence that lead to tragic outcomes: fierce hurricanes that destroy homes and take lives, and mentally-deranged killers who randomly maim and murder innocent people.

How can children make sense of these scary and unexpected things?

diane sitting on steps with three kidsAs adults we struggle with tragic events, trying and often failing to make sense of them. Then we are often overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness because things just don’t seem to be getting better.

In fact, they can seem to be getting worse.

We can feel vulnerable and scared not only for ourselves but especially for our children.

While obviously we all want to protect our children, sometimes we cannot protect them from hearing about tragedies, seeing them on TV, or learning about them from peers.

The stress children feel usually is the result of the fear and anxiety such tragic news stories (or events) can produce. Children often believe that what they see happening on television or hear about will happen to them.

So how do we help our children understand?

We need to be prepared to process these events with our children because we live in a world where there are no easy ways to protect them from hearing about or seeing images of frightening events.

It is hard enough for adults to process all the horrific events taking place all over the world—especially in our own country.

These events can impact children in profoundly deeper ways without the benefit of more mature brains that can provide some perspective.

Tips and resources which may help

An excellent article from the PBS Parents website entitled Talking with Kids about News offers some important suggestions for parents. Two key points the author makes are to minimize the stress and maintain a sense of normalcy.

Parents need to balance the following two responses. First, we need to listen with an appreciation for how real the feelings are for a child (“It’s so scary to think that something like that could happen here. You are scared because you don’t feel safe right now.”)

Young girl looking upset hugging an adults leg.Second, we need to provide clear and understandable reasons for why a child can feel safe. (“We keep our cell phones with us and easily call 911 if we need the police or an ambulance.” “There are so many people around you who can keep you safe. Let’s think of all the people we have in our family and our friends and other people whose job it is to keep us safe.”)

It is important not to minimize children’s feelings like this example does. “Don’t feel like that, you’re being silly. There’s no reason to be worried. Think about something else that makes you happy.”) None of these statements allow children the right to own their feelings and to share them freely with parents.

For example, “Tell me a little more about what you’re thinking and feeling,” provides the child with the invitation to express externally what is going on internally. Sometimes the invitation to do this produces what appears to be more anxiety, but often is giving the child the opportunity to express powerful thoughts and feelings that are bottled up inside.

Peter Levine, creator of Somatic Experiencing, talks about how important it is for anyone overwhelmed with sudden, extreme feelings to allow the traumatic energy to be released through crying, shaking, and trembling.

A boy hugging his motherParents can even explain to children that their bodies release powerful brain chemicals when something scary happens to help them to make them run or fight, but if they don’t need to do either one of these things, the brain chemicals have to be released somehow. Shaking, crying, and trembling are ways to release them.

What to do when the feelings come out.

After doing this kind of processing with your children, do whatever you can to help maintain normal routines. Providing normalcy and maintaining your calmness also helps children believe they are safe.

We can’t stop the world from experiencing more tragedies, senseless acts of violence, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires—the list goes on and on. We can, however, be prepared to process scary events with our children.

We can invite them to share freely, to express their fear and anxiety both in words and actions. When they express their emotions, it helps release the neurochemicals of fear (cortisol and adrenaline are two powerful ones) and to let them know they are safe because the adults around them are prepared and capable.

Invitation for Reflection

1. When you were a child, how did your parents respond when you are feeling scared? Were their responses comforting and empowering or did you believe you shouldn’t have those feelings and ended up bottling them inside you?
2. How have you been responding when your children learn about violent, tragic or otherwise scary events?
3. Are there changes you might want to consider making based on the information you are receiving here?