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How to Help Your Anxious Kids When Bad Things Happen

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I sometimes wish I could take my children and live in a bubble – immune to the violence, hatred and tragedies our world experiences. Although living in a bubble is tempting, we would also miss out on the wonderful sounds, smells and laughter this world can bring. And so 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 that already imagine all the what-if’s life can bring them. What if I die? What if I get sick? What if we get in a car accident? A global or national tragedy has the potential of derailing an anxious child and magnifying all their fears. So how do you help the child that already worries about diseases, kidnappings school shootings and natural disasters?

One small step at a time.

As a mother of anxious children and a therapist, here’s what I would advise:

1. On their awareness of the event:

Depending on your child’s age, they may or may not be aware of current events. If your child is very young, they might not have exposure to the news. I would not recommend discussing troubling events unless they become aware of it. Thy may be too young to have the coping mechanisms to process a tragedy on such a mass 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 head for months and even years later. Do not supply their brain 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 in understand the event.

-Ask you child if they have any questions. Don’t be presumptuous. Even as a child therapist I’m often surprised by what 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.

2. On maintaining perspective:

Anxious children have a talent of taking a small event (like a missing a homework assignment) and jumping to catastrophic conclusions (“I’ll never get into college!”). Upon hearing about a tragedy, your anxious child might jump to the conclusion their immediate safety is at risk. They might become fearful they’re not safe at school or in public. This can be debilitating for your child. To help put the a tragedy in perspective you can do the following:

-If the event is not in your area, 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 don’t want to sugar coat 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 one out of 175 million – not billion. You have better odds of winning the lottery than being in a global tragedy.

3. 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 unity it brings out in others.

-Tell your child stories about those who helped during the tragedy.

-If you come across pictures that emphasis kindness and unity, show them to your child. Avoid pictures that have any graphic images in them.

4. 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 that with your children.

In the days, weeks and months after a tragedy, observe your child’s behavior to assess how they’re 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

-increase in somatic complaints (stomach aches, 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’m saddened this has to be added to their plate. But with rain comes rainbows and with lemons comes lemonade. We need to teach our kids that darkness cannot extinguish the light. That we will not let that happen.

To see more from Natasha, visit Anxious Toddlers.

More on the San Bernardino shooting: 

– Live updates
– The Shooting at Inland Regional Center: A Parent’s Thoughts
Dad Reads Texts From Daughter in Building During San Bernardino Shooting
Politicians Tweet Responses to San Bernardino Shooting

Video From Inside Building at San Bernardino Shooting

Originally published: December 2, 2015
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