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

Tips from School Psychologists

More Pointers on Helping Kids Cope

The National Association of School Psychologists, located in Bethesda, Maryland, near the site of the sniper attacks, has these recommendations for parents:

1. Watch for signs of distress. Depending on their age, children may not express their concerns verbally. Signs of heightened anxiety include:

  • Refusing to go to school and excessive clinging
  • Persistent fears related to the shootings
  • Worry that loved ones might get hurt
  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep, or bedwetting
  • Irritability and loss of concentration
  • Increased agitation
  • Being easily startled and jumpy
  • New or unusual behavior problems
  • Physical complaints for which a physical cause cannot be found
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Sadness, listlessness, or decreased activity
  • Preoccupation with death or violence

Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental health professional if you are at all concerned.

2. Keep your explanations age-appropriate. Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their daily lives will not change. Upper elementary and early middle school children are more likely to ask questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need help separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They should be encouraged to share suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They may want to do something to help the victims and affected community. For all children, encourage them to talk about their thoughts and feelings. Be a good listener!

(Talking to a child under 5? Read our article "How to Soothe a Worried Toddler or Preschooler.")

3. Focus on your children during this time. Tell them you love them and everything will be okay. Try to help them understand what has happened, keeping in mind their developmental level.

4. Make time to talk with your children. Remember if you do not talk to your children about this incident someone else will. Take some time and determine what you wish to say.

5. Stay close to your children. Your physical presence will reassure them and give you the opportunity to monitor their reaction. Many children will want actual physical contact. Give plenty of hugs. Let them sit close to you, and make sure to take extra time at bedtime to cuddle and to reassure them that they are loved and safe.

6. Limit your child's television viewing of these events. If they must watch, watch with them for a brief time; then turn the set off. Don't sit mesmerized re-watching the same events over and over again.

7. Maintain a normal routine. To the extent possible stick to your family's normal routine for dinner, homework, chores, bedtime, etc., but don't be inflexible. Children may have a hard time concentrating on schoolwork or falling asleep at night.

8. Spend extra time reading or playing quiet games with your children before bed. These activities are calming, foster a sense of closeness and security, and reinforce a sense of normalcy. Spend more time tucking them in. Let them sleep with a light on if they ask for it.

9. Safeguard your children's physical health. Stress can take a physical toll on children as well as adults. Make sure your children get appropriate sleep, exercise, and nutrition.

10. Consider praying or thinking hopeful thoughts for the victims and their families. It may be a good time to take your children to your place of worship, write a poem, or draw a picture to help your child express their feelings and feel that they are somehow supporting the victims and their families.

11. Find out what resources your school has in place to help children cope. Most schools will stay open and are in fact a good place for children to maintain a sense of connectedness to people they know and trust. Some children will find being in lockdown mode frightening or unsettling. Reassure them that it is very unlikely that something bad will happen at their school but that adults are being extra cautious and that the emergency procedures help keep everyone safe. Schools should also have a plan for making counseling available to children and adults who need it. Don't force your children to go to school if they are frightened.


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