Parenting Worried Children

Posted by: Center for Growth Therapists

Whether you get your news from your personal computer, television, radio, or smartphone, it’s likely that you feel bombarded with negative messages and images from the world around us.  Parenting worried children who see news of tumultuous storms, terror attacks, school shootings, nuclear war, racial conflict, global warming, kidnapping, and violent crimes is daunting.  The news can obviously be scary for us, so it’s important to recognize how our young children receive the same messages.  Children hear the same things we do, even though we’d like to believe that we are sheltering them from all the bad things in the world!  In fact, sometimes children might hear a different version of the same news we hear depending on if they have a phone, what their teachers and administrators communicate in school, or if they talk about current events with their friends.

The biggest worry for young children is still a parent’s death, but based on the scary events in the world today, many also worry that they may never live to see the future.  When children continuously hear dire news about the world around them, it can change their worldview and increase their anxiety.  As parents, it’s our job to know how to talk to children in a thoughtful yet realistic way.  Whether we like it or not, as part of parenting worried children, we must help reduce and manage our children’s anxiety about the scary world we live in.   

The news can frighten our children and can create a sense of perpetual worry for them.  In addition to the news, young children are already being exposed to active shooter drills as early as preschool, which can exacerbate their anxiety.  The truth is, kids worry often and as parents it’s easy to brush off their concerns and say things like, “you don’t need to worry about that right now.”  However, kids worry, and when we do not acknowledge their concerns, their anxiety levels increase.  Additionally, when we do not acknowledge or validate these worries, kids might be hesitant to talk to us in the future if something concerns them or they need our advice.  Validating a child’s worries or concerns can help keep communication open between a parent and child.

With younger children, it’s important to know when and how to talk to your kids about what’s going on in the world.  While we want to protect them, it’s equally important to know how to comfort and prepare our kids.  Without these important survival tools, children will not have the confidence or be prepared to function in this world on their own.  Here are some helpful tips that help you parent more effectively in this scary world and reduce your children’s anxiety: 

  1. Observe Your Child Closely.  When a scary event occurs in the world, look for changes in your child’s behavior and take note if the changes are not reduced within a few weeks.  For example, after hearing scary news, is your child afraid to be left alone in situations that were never an issue before?  Does your child have bad dreams?  Is he/she crying more than usual?  These might all be signs that your child is not coping well after hearing worrisome news.  Keep communication open with your child and make an extra effort to talk to them about what might be bothering them and explore their feelings.  Validate their thoughts and feelings and let them know that being scared and worried is normal and expected in these types of situations.  Saying things like, “I know this is scary – I would expect you to be scared when hearing something like this,” “You know I am here to protect you and the likelihood that this would happen at your school is very low,” and “Remember, you can’t get into your school without a special id that works on the magnetic scanner.”  These types of reassurances help validate their thoughts and alleviate the threat of immediate danger a child might feel given their lack of control in the world.
  2. Limit Frightening News, But Be Honest When Necessary.  Monitoring your child’s viewing behavior is quite important in our world today and part of the process when parenting worried children.  Do what you can to limit the violent images they are exposed to through news broadcasts or through other social media.  If your child does want to watch the news, watch it with them so that you can help answer any questions or allay any fears they may have about what is going on in the world around them.  If the news interests them, make sure they are of an appropriate age and maturity level to absorb and discuss the range of news topics.  Consider asking their opinion about the news you have just viewed together, asking questions like “What did you think of that story?  How do you feel about it?  Do you feel like they missed any facts in telling the story?”  Get your kids reaction and then talk about it to help reduce their potential fears.  Finally, don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about what’s happening in the world if you sense that they know.  A mistake parents often make is being scared of acknowledging the truth for fear of planting unnecessary anxiety in their children’s minds.  If your kids are aware of an event and you are actually discussing it with them, you are likely doing a great job of reducing their anxiety!
  3. Assess Your Own Behavior To Protect Your Children.  Do you talk about current events with your fellow adult friends around your children?  Does it seem like your children are aloof or not paying attention during these circumstances?  Let this be your warning – do not be fooled!  Children are almost always listening and will hear what you are saying, even if you don’t think they are paying attention.  So monitor small talk with your own peers and keep discussion of current events among adults, private, and away from children. 
  4. Talk About Good News As a Family.  Make talking about good news a priority and a regular part of your daily routine.  If you don’t have time to do this around the dinner table (most don’t as family members’ schedules are often very different and conflict with each other), set aside another time to talk about news that can empower your kids.  Maybe it’s on the way to school, over breakfast (a great way to start the day on a positive note!), or at bedtime (a calming force at the end of the day!).  Focus on stories that are about love, compassion, or hope and how these affect your kids and explore their feelings.  You could also consider doing something proactive as a family as a way to keep the good news going.  For example, if you talk about a news story about a soldier who got to come home and surprise his family for the holidays, maybe extend that story and send soldiers overseas care packages.  Have your children participate in every step of the process from shopping for the materials, packing the box, writing the letter, and shipping the gift.   
  5. Model Anxiety Reducing Behavior and Create Healthy Distractions.  Part of parenting worried children is recognizing that you are the most important role model in your child’s life.  Practice anxiety reducing behavior yourself, and your child will learn to do the same.  Try things like exercise, image exercises, or practicing positive self-talk.  Staying active is a great way to keep your children away from news and their screens.  Are your kids active in school or recreational sports?  Do you regularly attend fitness classes or a gym to set a good example in staying physically fit for your kids and to live a long life?  Visualization training is another good way to help your children lessen anxiety.  For example, you might say to your child, “Imagine a spot where you feel peaceful – like think of Grandma’s backyard when you pick blueberries with her and how nice you always say that is” or “Like you know when you are in your tree house, just you and the dogs.”  You continue this exercise by saying, “Imagine that peaceful spot and close your eyes.  Keep thinking about how you feel and imagine you are there.  Breathe slowly and let your worries go away.”  Finally, work with your children on how they can talk and teach themselves how to stay calm in times of worry.  Try phrases that foster control over their thoughts like, “I can stay calm and breathe slowly” or “I know I can do this, I have done harder things than get this worry to go away.” 
  6. Problem Solve Together and Create Family Traditions.  When you work with your children to solve problems, it can be very empowering for them and ultimately help them reduce their anxiety.  For example, find solutions that are focused around protecting their own family, based on the world event that aroused their fears.  For example, after September 11th, the images of burning buildings frightened young children.  To help ease a child’s fears based on this one example, you could go out together and buy fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, and window ladders while also developing a family evacuation plan should there be a fire in their own home.  New family traditions can also be calming for kids.  For example, you can take a karate or Tae Kwon Do class with your child to learn and practice self-defense if the news is focused on random violence. Reacting to a world event in these ways gives children a sense of power and ownership that they can act on their own anxiety or fears.   

Parenting worried children in this unpredictable world is difficult – these are tough times for us all.  If you find that your young children are impacted negatively by what is going on in the world and their worry and anxiety is increasing to the point where you can no longer do the job on your own, consider reaching out to a therapist at The Center For Growth.  Our therapists can help you on an individual basis with parenting tips or you can approach the issue as a family.  Call 215-922-5683 or visit www.therapyinphiladelphia.com to make an appointment.