Life in Scary Times: How to Ease Your Child's Fears

As a sniper targets the Washington, DC, area, we offer these tips for helping your kids cope with their fears.

4 Top Strategies for a Scary Time

Sniper shootings in the Washington, DC, area have once again brought violence and terror close to home. How do you explain such cruel and pointless acts to a child? How do you ease your little one's fears when you're terrified yourself?

We asked noted child psychologist Michael Thompson, Ph.D., for advice. Here are his strategies for helping parents talk about the shootings.

1. Stay calm for your child's sake. "It's important not to get sucked into an aura of panic and anxiety. Kids can't assess risk on their own, because they don't know enough about the world, and so it's parents who have to filter the risks for them. You can't be nuts every day, because that's profoundly unnerving for your kids. Their fear comes not from reading the paper or watching tv--it comes from your reaction. As an adult, you have to get a grip on yourself if you possibly can."

2. Be realistic about the risks. "During the period of time this sniper has been shooting in the Washington, DC, area, there could have been 2 or 3 kids killed in the same area in car crashes. But we don't stop driving our cars because we might kill our kids. We don't get anxious about those day-to-day risks, and so our kids don't get anxious. This sniper situation worries us because it's scary and uncertain, and because this person is very interested in terrorizing us, but the risk is statistically tiny."

3. Be straightforward. "Don't deny that the situation is scary. You might say, 'There's a bad man out there trying to scare people. We will keep you safe. I'm trying to find my own courage. He's trying to make us afraid and I'm going to try not to be afraid.' Model that for your child."

4. Explain the situation in your own terms. "If your child asks why this sniper is shooting people, use the language you're comfortable with. I'm a psychologist, so I might tell my kids he's mentally ill. If you're religious, you might say he's evil. The important thing is to make it clear that, while there are some who are hurtful and dangerous, there are many, many more good people than there are bad people in this world. Kids need to know that there's a vast majority who are trying to stop this person--and they will stop him."

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