Children’s natural worries can intensify when they hear about terrorism, floods, diseases, fires, and other disturbing events. The recent deadly shootings in Montreal and Ottawa—two places usually considered safe—remind us of the importance of helping kids cope through troubling times.
Times of trouble provide opportunities for parents to help their children learn how to manage their feelings, confront challenges, and acquire resilience. By providing a safe environment, and being calm and attentive—and seeking professional help when it’s needed—parents can alleviate the fear, dismay, or confusion children often experience during chaotic times, as well as helping them develop coping skills that will serve them well going forward.
Parents shouldn’t dismiss a child’s desire to learn about what’s happening, no matter how troubling the circumstances are. Instead, they should listen carefully, acknowledge the fears as valid, and offer support in discovering more about the situation, its possible causes, and what’s being done to prevent recurrences.
Adults who listen actively to their kids, and provide a safe and dependable environment for them, are on track to supporting emotional well-being during troubling times. Regardless of a child’s age, temperament, ability, situation, or concerns, adults can work effectively to soothe worries that would otherwise cause deeper distress.
Following the same principle as the airlines’ instructions to fix your own oxygen mask before adjusting a child’s, parents have to wrestle with their own anxieties and emotional responses to adversity before they can address their child’s. This means developing effective coping strategies for themselves. It also helps to communicate regularly with others in children’s lives, such as grandparents and teachers. If a child perceives that the adults in her life are upset, distracted, condescending, or harried, she may be more worried.
Children and teens who observe their parents coping well, and who learn how to deal with fears or address the problems of others, are better able to move on. They’re also acquiring skills that will make them more resilient the next time adversity strikes.
Here are some practical suggestions for adults to help kids manage their concerns in times of trouble. It applies to children of all ages, from toddlerhood through adolescence. There are three sections: the first is about being a good model, especially during challenging times; the second provides strategies for offering reassurance; and the third is about supporting your child in taking action.
Model Effective Coping Skills
- Honour your own feelings. Take stock of your emotions before attempting to address your child’s concerns.
- Strengthen your social support networks. Talk to friends, family, and others about issues that might be unsettling.
- As much as possible, stick to normal routines. Security and predictability are especially important in times of trouble. Make sure you’re there when you say you will be.
- Create a calm atmosphere. Try to provide ample time for quiet discussion when you’re feeling relatively relaxed.
- Be patient with yourself. Be as responsive as you can be, giving yourself permission (as always) not to have to do everything perfectly.
- Listen. Pay attention to what your child is saying, and also what she’s not saying (but might want to know). Ask her what she wants to learn more about, and what other concerns she might have. Whether or not your child feels like talking, a warm hug or a few quiet moments together can be enormously comforting.
- Be attentive to undue stress. Your attention is particularly important if your child has experienced other traumatic events, has a history of emotional problems, lacks friends with whom to share ideas, or shows signs of undue stress. Such signs include changes in sleep, activity level, or eating habits; mood swings; academic decline; and substance abuse.
- Be honest, but provide only as much detail as the child is able to handle. Acknowledge there are problems, be available to discuss them, but set limits on media exposure. Explain that it doesn’t help to focus too much on troubles.
- Emphasize the positive. Describe relief efforts, plans for rebuilding, roles of first responders, and the importance of supportive relationships in times of trouble.
- Consider getting help if necessary. If your child is deeply troubled and cannot be calmed, consider consulting a professional with expertise in children’s emotional well-being.
Support Your Child in Taking Action:
- Encourage your child to express his ideas and feelings through the arts. Drawing, music, journal writing, and other form of expression can be good emotional outlets, and also serve as springboards for discussion.
- Make time for happy activities. Reassure your child that if she has fun it doesn’t mean she’s insensitive to the misfortune of others. Encourage her to play, and to maintain balance in her life.
- Tell inspiring stories that focus on resilience and courage. Find factual or fictional accounts of people who’ve been affected by unsettling events. Help your child understand it’s possible to be persistent or brave, or find ways to confront challenge, suffering, or loss.
- Fortify family ties and friendships. During times of trouble, strong, supportive relationships can make a big difference.
- Reach out. Although your child may be too young to fix major or global problems, if he wants to contribute to relief efforts help him look for volunteer opportunities at levels he can manage. Information is available from health centers, food banks, youth groups, and charitable organizations such as UNICEF, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and many others.
Although parents can’t shelter their children from all adversity, they can help their kids learn about imbalances in the world, and find meaningful ways to create fulfilling balances of their own.
For more reassuring ideas and recommendations from Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, see their recent book, Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, and check out their website: www.beyondintelligence.net
Other good resources include
Note: We hope this article will help families and educators coping with difficult times, including acts of nature, epidemics, violence, or other disturbing events. First published at www.sengifted.org, it has been reprinted in newsletters and journals around the world. We updated it in November, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck, and then again in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This is a newly revised version of the article.