Bombings, tornadoes, terrorist alerts, hurricanes, school shootings, super storms have boosted all our jitters lately, but don’t forget our children. I’ve received dozens of parent emails and media calls these past few days asking for advice on how to help calm kids.
Many parents tell me what is often typical following a tragedy or trauma whether at home or across the seas- their children’s fears increase.
“My Little Miss Sunshine was fine at home, but at soon as she went back to school she’s become a clinger.”
“My son has become so moody and irritable. He says nothings wrong, but he’s not the same kid.”
“I’m having a hard time helping my kids get to sleep. They won’t let me turn the lights off and keep getting out of bed all hours of the night.”
“Mine kids are having horrible nightmares.”
“My child who always loved school suddenly doesn’t want to go.”
And each parent then asks me, “What can I do to help my child?”
While we all dream that our children will have carefree days, but the truth is our world is unpredictable. Scary things do happen. We can’t protect our kids from uncertain events. And we can’t try to “talk them out of their worry.” The fear is real to the child. What does help are giving “tools” to empower the child so he can manage his fears and worries.
Studies show that children’s worries can be reduced if they learn habits that help them reduce anxieties – such as sharing worries, normalizing expectations, practice relaxation, and others — that he can use the rest of his life. It’s up to us to teach our kids coping strategies so they can use them to help them deal with whatever troubling event they encounter.
Best yet, if we help our kids practice those strategies enough so they become habits our kids will be able to use them the rest of their lives.
What follows are proven ways you can parent for change — like modeling courage, monitoring media input, and teaching step by step acclimation — that will boost kids’ resilience, help them cope with everyday fears in healthier ways and prevent anxiety from shortchanging their lives. Each child is different as each anxiety-producing experience. It’s up to us as parents, counselors and educators to help our kids find the technique that works best for them.
How to Help Kids Manage Fear
1. Teach kids to monitor scary media consumption
Images from movies, video games, music videos, Internet websites, and even television news stories can trigger fears or make them even worse. So monitor your child’s media exposure and be especially particular about what your child watches closer to bedtime.
Best yet, teach your child to use the remote to turn off what he knows if affecting him. “This is scary. I don’t need to watch it” is a great line for kids to learn to say.
Also help your kid learn what to watch that is more relaxing and fear-reducing: comedies! Have a couple of DVDs that are “giggle-producers” ready for kids to pop in when anxieties increase. Doing so will help our kids learn how to monitor their own media diets.
2. Share worries as a family
Encourage your child to talk about his fears. Putting a worry into words makes the more manageable. Your goal is to “catch” her worries early before they blow out of proportion and become full-fledge fears so be sure she knows you will listen. You can then not only reassure your child but also clarify any misconceptions and answer questions.
Beware: studies find moms talk more about feelings with daughters than sons. Let’s talk feelings more with our sons!
Also talk about your feelings as a family–it will be more natural and kids will know it’s “ok” to open up because you are discussing your concern.
3. Provide calm support
Help your child feel safe. And don’t undermine the power of your words. When your child does confront a fear and hears your comforting, “It will be okay,” (or gets the same message from daddy holding her hand) she will feel more secure that she can deploy in other trying times. Your words of support will become a model your child can use himself. Our kids copy how we cope with our fears. So be the example of how to handle your own worries that you want your child to copy.
Also, keep yourself strong. Fears are caught by children or passed down. Keep your worries or pessimism in check especially during a tragedy or after a trauma.
4. Help your child know what to expect
There are some fears that we can’t protect our kids from and just must be endured. And educating your child about the event can clear up misperceptions as well as boost security.
For instance, if your child worries about school safety, share the school safety plan. Let him know that the principal and teachers are trained in an emergency. Show the locks on the school doors that can be used in “lock down.” Describe how the whole community-mayor, police, fire department, doctors-know what to do in an emergency.
Be calm and matter of fact in your delivery. You may want to first ask: “Would you like to talk about what your school is doing to keep you safe?” Visit your child’s website to assure him that there is a plan in place (after you’ve checked to ensure one is posted).
But what about an upcoming event that could be anxiety-producing? Here is how you might ease your child’s anxieties about an upcoming hospital stay by helping her know what to expect: You might arrange a hospital tour, read a book such as Franklin Goes to the Hospital to help her talk about her worries, buy a toy doctor’s kit to play with, and suggest she tuck her teddy bear and blanket in her backpack before she leaves.
Knowing what to expect – or realizing there is a safety plan in place that the child practices and rehearses can reduce that fear. Rehearse!
5. Read books that deal with the fear
Telling stories, acting out situations or reading books about a particular scary situation can help kids overcome fears. The strategy is called “Bibliotherapy” or healing with books. It’s helpful because kids often identify with the character who shares the same anxiety: “Oh good! Somebody else feels the same way!” Kids are more likely to open up about their worries to you. And putting the fear into words can help reduce the child’s concern.
A few kid favorites include: Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes, Fears, Doubts, Blues and Pouts, by Norman Wright, Gary J. Olver, and Sharon Dahl; What To Do When You Worry Too Much, by Dawn Huebner; What To Do When You’re Scared and Worried, by James J. Christ; Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak,; There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer; and Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberley.
6. Say fear-reducing self-statements
Teach your child to face the fear by helping her learn to say a positive phrase. It’s best to help your child choose only one phrase and help her practice saying the same one several times a day until she can say to herself when feeling anxious. A few fear-reducers include: “I can do this.” “I can handle this.” “I will be OK.” “It’s not a big deal.”
7. Practice relaxation strategies
If the fear makes your child tense, learning relaxation strategies could help. Practice the one tip over and over until it becomes almost “automatic.” You might need to put a picture reminder on the fridge or next to your child’s bed. The trick is for your child to use that strategy the moment the worry comes before it builds.
~ Tell him the moment he starts to feel tense to imagine he is floating peacefully on a cloud or lying quietly on a beach.
~ Taking slow deep breaths also reduces anxiety.
~ Teach your child to pretend that his lungs are balloons filled to the brim and to slowly let the air out of them as his fears go away.
~ Help your teen fill his MP3 player with more soothing relaxing music that works for him.
8. Ask for hugs!
When our kids are troubled one of our natural parenting instincts kick in and we hug them to try to comfort them. Research finds that our instincts are right! Hugs actually help reduce our kids’ worries and calm them. University of Miami studies found massage, back rubs, and hugs are especially soothing and emotionally benefitting for children in trauma.
Teach your kid to say, “I need a hug!” Better yet, do family back rubs – or shoulder rubs for those teens who feel they’re “too grown up.”
9. Use their imagination!
Capitalize on your child’s vivid imagination if she has one (and some kids do!) Instead of fearing the bad man or the monster help her conjure up an image of a knight in shining armor, an angel, or a super hero who comes to the rescue and chasing off the bad guys.
The technique — imagining the dream you want to have — is now used to help our soldiers suffering from PTSD. It’s a great skill to also teach a child.
I’ve also had a mom tell me the best way she helped her child ward off fears of a “monster” who her child “knew” was in the closet was with an empty spray bottle. Mom filled it with water but told her daughter it was a magic potion that got rid of monsters. The child sprayed the closet and also scared away the monster. “It worked Mom. The magic potion got rid of the monster!”
Kids’ imaginations can work to help reduce fears!
10. Put your kid in the driver seat
Research shows that feeling as if you have some control over a situation helps reduce the worry. So empower your child by helping him develop his own fear-reducing plan. Start by identifying one fear.
Problem: “The weird shadows on my wall make me scared to sleep in the dark.”
“What might help need you feel safer?” Then brainstorm reasonable options until your child can find at least one thing that might help him feel more in control and then carry it out.
Kid-generated Solutions: “Tuck a flashlight under my pillow and move the my bed away from the bookcase so I don’t see the shadows on the wall.”
The truth is our world is unpredictable and uncertain. As much as we’d hope, we can’t protect our children from what life offers. But we can help our children learn ways to manage their fears and reduce their anxieties. We can teach our kids coping strategies so they can use them to help them deal with whatever troubling event they encounter as well as boosting their resilience for life.