Coronavirus, Wildfires, Oh My: What to Say to a Child Who’s Scared By the News

The job of a parent is not to protect their kids, but to prepare them to recognize real threats and handle stress.

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Fear is a natural part of a child’s life. It may start with water, stairs, and the neighborhood dog, all self-contained and three-dimensional. Then, the outside world slowly creeps in. They hear about a plane crash or wildfire or coronavirus, and they’re scared. You want to protect them, which is both a natural inclination and futile effort.

Fears aren’t going to stop, nor should they. The brain looks for danger more than safety. That’s a good thing, since the neighborhood dog might actually be nasty. “Fear keeps you alive,” says Dr. Jeff Bostic, psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

The news comes in around elementary school. That’s when kids start to have bad dreams, fantasize and lie, which is just a form of fantasy, says Corinna Tucker, professor of human development and family studies at University of New Hampshire. They also can start connecting events, so it becomes, I heard about a plane crash. Dad flies on planes ….

Triggers can underlie everything. The worry might not make sense to you, but it does to them. “It’s not for us to reason why,” says Dr. Laura Kastner, family and child psychologist and author of Getting to Calm, The Early Years.

Now, it’s also good to note that adults worry about the news as well. We just handle it better, because we understand context and perspective. When talking to a child who’s scared about the news, the job of a parent then, per Bostic, is not to protect your kids, but to prepare them to recognize real threats and handle stress.

The Sentiment: “That’s really scary stuff. It’s horrible to feel that way. I’m here, and I’m going help you.”

First Things First: Calm Them Down

Before you say anything, it’s important to assess your child’s worry level. Are they merely curious or are they in full-blown panic mode? If there are tears and shallow breathing, they won’t hear anything until they’re calm. In this case, the first thing to say is: “Let’s first get your heart rate down. Let’s breathe deeply. I’ll do it with you.” Kastner says this works in two important ways: One, you’re guiding them out of panic-mode; Two, by telling them how to do this, you’re providing them a useful skill.

What Not to Say to a Child Who’s Scared After Watching the News

When talking to a worried child, it’s easy to accidentally dismiss, invalidate, or criticize their fears. Instinct often tells us to try to convince them that their concerns are silly and they have nothing to worry about. But this isn’t useful in terms of helping them develop healthy coping mechanisms or self-esteem. Here are some phrases to avoid.

  • “There’s nothing to worry about.” (It’s dismissive.)
  • “We don’t need to talk about that.” (You’re stonewalling a valid worry.)
  • “Why would you worry yourself with that?” (It’s criticizing, belittling and more stonewalling.)
  • “That’s nothing.” (It is to them.)
  • “I was scared of that but I got over it.” (Without advice, it makes them feel inadequate since they’re not over it.)

What to Say to a Child Who’s Scared of the News

When a child is calm enough to have a discussion, the name of the game is validation, validation, validation. Saying such things as, “I can see why you’re worried. I get worried too.” Then follow-up by asking specific questions like, “What’s are you worried about?” “What do you know about the situation?”

When you begin talking, watch for a child’s inevitable signs of, “Yeah, that’s enough,” or, “I’m still worried,” and proceed accordingly. If you’re unsure, ask in a non-hurried tone, “Does that help? Do you need more?” And with everything, one rule applies: You know your child and how best to give information.

3 Ways to Help a Worried Child Learn Positive Coping Mechanisms

When speaking to a child about their fears, your goal is not to talk endlessly, but to shift into logical, problem-solving. Redirecting the child something fun and healthy is an excellent way to curb their catastrophizing and teach them self-care tactics. Play a game. Shoot some hoops. Read a book. Offer to initially do it with them, but since you won’t always be available, and they might be around others on occasion, give them options that are independent and inconspicuous. Drawing. Singing a song in their head. Creating their all-time baseball team. The brain can’t be in fight or flight and do word puzzles simultaneously, so this gets them out of endless worrying. “Ruminating just burns it into the brain,” Bostic warns.

Introduce Logic

Are they concerned about the wildfires in the Outback? The Corona virus outbreak? Take out a map and show them how far away Australia is. Offer such context as, “The world has seen illnesses and wildfires before.” While you don’t want to dismiss the seriousness, it’s good to mention positive aspects, Tucker says. Consider: “Doctors are working on a vaccine right now.” “There are thousands of people fighting those fires.” “The plane I’m flying on has a crew just for maintenance.”

Break Big Problems Into Little Steps

Breaking down big problems into little steps is crucial, as it lets your kid know that rather than waiting and worrying, there are always positive things to do, Bostic says. If your child is worried about your upcoming plane flight, say, “We’ll get our stuff together. We’ll get their early to check in, and while we do that, they’re examining the plane.” If it’s a flu epidemic, say: “We wash our hands and sneeze into our elbows.”

Teach Them to Observe Their Environment

Say your kid heard of — and is worried about — sharks in the water at the beach. Look around and see if others at the beach are in the ocean. If they are, say, “Just don’t go farther out than them. They’ll get bitten first and you can get out.” It might sound funny, but it’s another real-world coping tool, because being safe doesn’t always mean avoiding a situation at all costs. “We all reality check,” Bostic says. “It’s a huge way to tame down the fear.”

The Bigger Picture: Control Your Own Fears and Prioritize the Positive

A parent’s fear can a child’s. So, ask yourself: “Are you calm?” If your child brings up something that gets you anxious, take some deep breaths, then put on your poker face. You can be screaming on the inside, but you want to broadcast control.

Next question: “How much news are you consuming?” It’s probably more than necessary. “We’re not supposed to be exposed to stress all day,” Kastner says. The simple solution is to reduce. You take in less. They do the same. There’s overall less stress in the house, especially at night, and you’re not any less aware of current events.

And with that freed-up time, use it for your family. Play games. Toss around a football. Sing ridiculous songs. Hug more. When these are prioritized, smiling and laughing increase. Coupled with respecting their worries, so does the comfort and trust, and, per Kastner, you get to affirmatively answer your guiding question of “Am I a safe place for them?”

Along with the ability to handle stress and the unknown, when you prioritize positive experiences, you’re showing your kids that worries don’t dominate. They’re given their due, but, in any crisis, good stuff not only exists but also is experienced. “It can be overwhelming, but you don’t want it to consume you,” Tucker says. “It’s okay to feel these things, but there are other parts of life. You can go play. It’s all about balance.”

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